Industrial scale and brittleness

Look at that banana, just look at it.

Bananas are a modern miracle. They’re cheap, nutritious, and readily available.

And just about every banana you’ve ever eaten (if you live in the Northern Hemisphere) came from the same tree.

Not just a similar tree, the way oak trees are all similar to one another. The same exact tree, which was planted in a hothouse in England about a hundred and fifty years ago. The Cavendish banana tree (named after the family that’s now called the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire) is sterile. It has no seeds. The only way to grow one is to take a cutting from an existing tree and basically grow a clone.

Because the tree was optimized for yield and taste, we end up with plentiful, delicious, cheap bananas.

Until a blight arrives. And the virus that’s just around the corner is almost here, and it will wipe out every single Cavendish tree on Earth in just a few more years.

There have been real environmental side effects all along, but at scale, they become impossible to ignore.

Or consider the legal system in my country. It grew from a fairly informal and resilient (if not always fair) way to keep the peace and settle disputes into a behemoth, which combines the prison-industrial complex with a very expensive civil suit system that’s beneficial to many of the key players but ultimately insensitive to those that can’t use it to their advantage.

Check out Rohan Pavuluri’s new TED talk about bankruptcy, or Bryan Stevenson’s urgent talk on criminal justice.

People aren’t bananas, and the injustices that the legal system has created have always been shameful. But at scale, immense scale, they’re even worse.

Industrial scale seems to pay off. Until it doesn’t. And then it’s on us to change it, while there’s still time.