Vulnerability and sustainability

John Naughton’s column in today’s Observer about governments’ online spying sent me to Cory Doctorow’s essay of a few days ago about the parallels between a secure internet and public health. Both are worth a read.

They set me thinking about the meaning of sustainability. My last book,

, was about sustainability defined broadly to include not only environmental issues but also economic assets including human capital and infrastructure and social sustainability (hence inequality). All matter for the fundamental question of whether or not future generations will be able to have at least as high a standard of living as we do. Many people in the developed economies think the answer is ‘no’ when they look at what’s happening to house prices, pensions, student debt and a lacklustre economy with no real wage growth. It’s hard to separate the effects of cycle and trend & I think it’s too soon to lose hope, but the idea of ‘secular stagnation’ is around.

[amazon_image id=”0691156298″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as If the Future Matters[/amazon_image]

Anyway, I thought about the question of changes in assets of all kinds as an indicator of sustainability. The two columns made me realize I didn’t think enough about risk questions in that book. No doubt this features prominently in the environmental literature. But when you think about various examples – the effect of floods or unrest in Thailand or the Japanese earthquake on auto industry supply chains, the vulnerability of the UK’s west country to one train line right next to the coast being washed away in storms, or indeed the extraordinary vulnerability of the whole of the global economy to malign activities affecting the internet – the sustainability of the economy is obviously in question.

I find the Doctorow/Naughton parallel with public health persuasive. How would we react if we learned that the government was dealing with the threat of bird flu by secretly developing particularly virulent strains of the virus to use on – well, on whom exactly? –  rather than working on a vaccine.

Ian Goldin’s new book,

, out in May, looks at exactly this kind of question. One to look out for. He’s talking about it in Oxford soon.

[amazon_image id=”0691154708″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Butterfly Defect: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, and What to Do about It: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, and What ot Do about it[/amazon_image]