How Big Systems Fail and How To Avoid Getting Crushed When They Do


Here’s a some insight that you might find useful.   It’s an example of how a big system fails.

NOTE:  Don’t get discouraged when you are reading this.  There’s a silver lining to this story, but you will need to read to the end to see it.

When I was in Colorado last week, I got to see some of the fire damage caused by this year’s drought.

The drought was so severe that it caused thousands of acres of forest to burn near my alma mater, the USAF Academy (and all across the state).

However, the damage didn’t stop there.  The fires eliminated the ground cover needed to prevent erosion, which led to massive mudslides when it did rain a bit.

Worse, in the mountains, pine trees weakened by the drought became easy prey to the pine beetle.  Here’s the nasty brute.

This beetle has killed so many trees in Colorado, the forest floor is covered with dead trees.  It’s so bad that if Colorado gets another year of heat and drought, we’ll see even bigger fires next year.

In the farming states, the drought has devastated crops, which in turn will drive up the price of food substantially this year.  Worse, the record 9 million acres of drought afflicted corn that won’t be harvested this year, may not be usable as silage (a lower value use of the crop).  Why?  Plants that are stunted by drought, can often concentrate nitrogen from the fertilizers used on them at toxic levels to farm animals.

The list of effects caused by the drought aren’t just limited to the US.   For example, in Syria, the long drought they have suffered has been so severe it displaced nearly 1.5 million people from Syria’s farm-belt, which has led to an unraveling of the social fabric.  This displacement not only made the current revolt in the country inevitable, it may make an orderly resolution of it impossible.

What’s the lesson in all of this?

One lesson is that when big unstable and mismanaged systems (like our economy and environment) fail, their failure CASCADES into other big systems, and there is very little ANYBODY can do to stop it from happening.

There’s also another lesson and this is the start of the silver lining.  This is the lesson that nobody seems to talk about, yet it’s the most important one.  What is it?

You can avoid most of the impact of these failures if you aren’t completely dependent on these big systems.

Here’s an example.

Foodscaping instead of Landscaping

What is foodscaping?

It’s when you replace your yard with a garden or aquaculture system that can produce high quality food for your family.

How much room does it take?  Not as much as you think.  Here’s an example from a foodscaping company called Ecolicious in Australia.  They converted a small, barren, and traditional backyard into a productive aquaculture system that will enable the home’s owners to vegetables hydroponically and raise fish in a small decorative pond.

With the landscaping touches thrown in, it’s actually makes the backyard a refuge of tranquility.


Now, imagine a community that has incorporated foodscaping into its DNA.  A community that has decided to become resilient.

It should be clear that a resilient community that foodscapes will eat well in good times and bad.  They also have the capacity and knowledge in place to increase production in a pinch.

I don’t know about you, but foodscaping is definitely something worth pushing for in your community.

Be resilient!



Managing Editor


PS:  Paradoxically, the more people become resilient and less dependent on these big, global systems, the more stable and dependable these systems become.  So, let’s get started!

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  • Kevin Carson

    Cisterns and other forms of rainwater conservation are also important.

    BTW, I built a Hugelkultur bed last month based on your recent focus on it, and it’s got cowpeas (blackeye and zipper cream) planted in it.

    • John Robb


      Very cool. Want to write a short segment on a cool aspect of the homebrewindustrial revolution? JR

      • Kevin Carson

        Definitely, and thanks! How many words have you got in mind?

        • John Robb

          Very cool.

          A couple of pages. More insightful, the better. Make every word count.


          • Kevin Carson

            Will do — thanks!

  • ryan

    “Plants that are stunted by drought, can often concentrate nitrogen from the fertilizers used on them at toxic levels to farm animals.”

    Yup, farmers are already rushing to test for toxic levels of nitrates –

    RPT-After drought blights crops, US farmers face toxin threat

    Drought and increased CO2 levels are also causing rises in hydrogen cyanide production in grasslands, cassava, and other major crops.

    Extreme low water levels in the Mississippi river crippling commerce –

    Drought effects round up –

    • John Robb

      Thanks Ryan. JR

  • kunkmiester

    The pine beetle has been aided by anti-fire forest management–if the forests had been burned more often, it would have hindered the beetle, which doesn’t come from an ecosystem that burns every so often. It would have also reduced the fuel these fires burn, meaning that later fires would be much easier to control. More gov stupidity, but I suppose I’m preaching to the choir here.

    • John Robb

      I talked with some people about that. They were doing preventative fires until a couple of them got so big and did so much damage, it wasn’t much different than the real fire. JR

  • jadene mayla

    I’m thrilled to find your article and raise a glass to your selection of topic. Couldn’t be more in line with my views and, really, what is needed..stat! May I be so fortunate as to fine the right group of people and that perfect piece of land.. :)

  • John Robb

    Thanks Jadene. I hope you find them too. JR

  • John Robb


    Do you have a case study + CAD image of a foodscape plan you’ve put together that you could send me?