In the April 5th, 2008 issue of New Scientist, they had an article asking if a pandemic would destroy civilization. I'll spare you much of the detail, but basically the author, Debora MacKenzie asserts the following:
- All past societies have eventually fallen as their technology failed to keep up with societal complexity.
- Our technology is failing to keep up with societal complexity.
I'm sure you can see she's going with this. She offers some explanation for the former and evidence for the latter, but at the end of the day, it's only a small magazine article and not the sort of defense of her thesis that would compel people to action. Nonetheless, it's worth considering.
MacKenzie focused specifically on would happen if a serious pandemic hit society and asked if society would be able to handle one. I keep thinking about this and I fear that the answer may be "no" and that the Internet may have contributed to the problem.
What If The 1918 Spanish Flu Happened Again?
The Spanish Flu pandemic which swept the world in 1918 is estimated to have killed between 2.5 and 5% of the world's population. Think about that. Anywhere between 2 to 5% of the world's population died and the estimates I've found of the total number infected seem to vary between 20 to 50%. In short, roughly one in ten people who took ill died.
So what would happen if it came back? Right off the bat, the biggest difference is how much more frequently people travel today than in 1918. This would likely mean diseases would be spread much more rapidly now than in the past. With many diseases today turning out to be resistant to traditional drugs, the consequences could be severe. Even if we think this unlikely, but don't forget that both the 1918 and the lesser known (and milder but still deadly) 1957 pandemics were believed to be flu variants. Influenza is not exactly an uncommon disease.
So if such a pandemic were to spread today, I'd be very keen on working from home. I'd probably not be the only one. I'd want to rush out and stock on water and food. Probably a lot of people would be feeling exactly the same way. That's where the Internet becomes a problem.
The Strength and Weakness of "Just In Time" Inventories
During the Internet boom of the 1990s, many new businesses and business models were created. However, much of the greatest success came from improving the efficiency of existing business models. In particular, the increased adoption of Just In Time (JIT) inventory systems in the Internet age has led to dramatic improvements for many companies. Rather than keep spare inventory on hand (which must be tracked, warehoused, moved about more, etc.) and drive up costs, many companies have leveraged the use of the Web to ensure that they only have the supplies they immediately need. As a result, their costs drop dramatically. Reading the Wikipedia article on JIT, which focuses heavily on Toyata's adoption of JIT, makes it clear how powerful this is.
So the upside of JIT is that we don't have excess inventory. The downside of JIT is that we don't have excess inventory. The New Scientist article asserts that the average city only has a three day supply of food  and talks about how this and similar issues combined with the UK trucker's strike in 2000:
When a strike blocked petrol deliveries from the UK’s oil refineries for 10 days in 2000, nearly a third of motorists ran out of fuel, some train and bus services were cancelled, shops began to run out of food, hospitals were reduced to running minimal services, hazardous waste piled up, and bodies went unburied. Afterwards, a study by Alan McKinnon of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK, predicted huge economic losses and a rapid deterioration in living conditions if all road haulage in the UK shut down for just a week.
You can read a slightly more detailed report of its impact at IWS, an Information Warfare site.
The people I've spoken to in the UK about the impact of the truckers strike make it clear that its limited duration helped minimize the impact. However, the next pandemic (they've occurred repeatedly throughout history and will happen again) will likely spread faster and face a more thoroughly interconnected world wholly dependent on supply chains for necessities rather than stockpiles. If it's serious, the economic and political chaos could be terrifying. Gas will disappear quickly. Food will run out. Hospitals will run out of beds and supplies. People will stop showing up for work. Right now, people complain about civil right. Once you start threatening Maslow's hierarchy, things could get much, much worse.
All of this makes me think that converting to Mormonism might not be a bad idea. The devout are required to keep a year's supplies of food and other necessities available at all times. Even if you don't want to be Mormon, stockpiling food and supplies really isn't that bad of an idea.
 The apparent correlation of 2/5, 20/50 is likely an accident and the "one in ten" number is possibly very inaccurate.
 If anyone can find independent verification of the "3-day food supply" claim, I'd be grateful.