Criticality. It is the term used by physicists to describe the process in which a fissile material attains a critical mass that leads to a nuclear reaction. In essence, it quantifies the point at which a chain reaction will occur, that point where the process towards the core destroying everything in its path becomes unstoppable. There are various stages to criticality, the most terrifying sounding of which, the super-critical stage, leaves no illusion as to the inevitability of all-out destruction.
In the 1940s, several physicists lost their lives trying to establish the tipping points of criticality. Terrifyingly manual experiments, described as "tickling the dragon's tail" were conducted by brave (or possibly insane) scientists trying to better understand the factors which influenced these tipping points. The margin for error should have been too small for the frailties of conducting these experiments by hand, and yet that’s exactly what they did, in some cases literally holding material apart with a screwdriver. On two separate occasions (though both incidents occurred whilst using the same, aptly named, "Demon Core" of plutonium) had it not been for the self-sacrifice of individual scientists, the nuclear material would have gone super-critical, the chain reaction become unstoppable, and disaster ensued.
For the first time in the two or more years of commentary on the criticality of the Eurozone crisis the equivocation around the severity of the situation seems to be over. We now have a consensus on the fact that it is about to go super-critical. Until now, the balance of actual liquidity or the promise thereof, the veneer of political will towards austerity and the lack of certainty surrounding the criticality of events have all held the super-critical stage at bay. But the chain reaction is beginning. The point at which even heroics will do no good is approaching and time is running out. The time for experimenting at the edges, for trying to find the boundaries of what will be just enough, has passed. The decision, much like it did for the physicists standing two feet away from a highly radioactive lump of plutonium on the verge of destroying everything for several miles, has become binary.
For the finance ministers standing two feet from Europe's core, it is an invidious position. There are no right moves anymore, only less wrong ones. It would seem that their choice is now one between Depression on a scale that will bring about lasting political and social change, or the risk of huge inflation. To this observer, the former is a guarantee of oblivion. The latter undoubtedly carries all of its own risks and downsides. However, none of those seem to be as immediate in impact, nor as dramatic in scale.
Perhaps, if events have recognisably reached this binary outcome, it becomes easier to take action. The time for "trying" having expired, there is only "do, or do not do" (Yoda). For the physicists of the 1940s, what once was hypothetical soon became frighteningly real. We cannot hide behind the curtain of thesis any longer. The screwdriver is slipping and we need to act now. The counter factual becomes the crutch upon which to lean the enormous weight of a decision that will influence the lives of generations to come. "Had we not acted, it would have ended in Armageddon" now seems a very justified stance, even if criticism of having ever got to such a frightful criticality can still be leveled.
Conveying this message clearly enough so that all can understand it and have patience, if not acceptance, with the action taken is key. Given that we have reached a point of criticality the blast radius will not be confined to a few individual countries - the fallout will be global. As such, the hour has come for national interests to be set aside, supra rather than international co-operation is what’s required.
In the final analysis, the decision making of someone will have to save us. Someone will have to be brave, and most likely someone will have to sacrifice themselves or what they believe in. If not, well put quite simply....KABOOM.
James Conway works for Portman Capital and was one of the authors of the CPS publication "Give Us Our Fair Shares", published one year ago today.