The expansion of the Anthropocene (see also recent stories run by BBC and the Economist) has resulted in an interconnected global society, where people and places are highly linked (think transportation networks, communication networks and global markets). The fact that social-ecological systems around the world are more and more connected, brings with it an increased risk that local crises (e.g. failure in crop production, collapse of fish stocks, droughts, disease pandemics) spread and interact in dangerous ways. Recent research has termed this phenomenon as "concatenated crises" - shocks or disturbances to a social-ecological system that emerge simultaneously in different parts of the world, spread rapidly and begin interacting with each other in unpredictable ways.
A new paper, headed by Duan Biggs of the ARC Centre of Excellence at James Cook University in Australia, asks whether we are now entering an era where such linked crises are becoming more and more common.
What causes linked (concatenated) crises?
So how do these linked crises arise? The paper identifies two general mechanisms behind them.
1. First is the fact that large, global drivers of change (e.g. climate change, ocean acidification, invasive species, global pandemics, globalization of agriculture and fish markets) are becoming increasingly dominant over local drivers of change. The additional burden of, say, less rainfall and higher temperatures (a consequence of he global driver climate change) could be too much too handle for a local patch of farmland that has already suffered through local mismanagement. Such multiple stressors (global and local drivers of change acting together) can cause a failure in the capacity of social-ecological systems to produce the goods and services necessary for human well-being (e.g. a collapse in the crop production of the local farmland).
2. The second reason we might be entering an era of global connected crises is simply the high level of connectivity between people and places. For example, while disease pandemics raging Europe in 14th century were limited to that region, the air-traveling societies of today face pandemics that can be quickly propagated through the world (e.g. the recent SARS and H1N1 pandemics). This connectedness also increases the risk of local management actions in a social-ecological system in one part of the world become drivers of change in similar socio-ecological systems in some other remote place. For example, as national policies successfully stimulated coffee production in Vietnam during the 1990s, these same set of events caused global coffee prices to drop dramatically and decreased livelihood securities in Mexican coffee-growing communities.
The 2007-2008 food price crisis
The paper then looks at the global food price crisis of 2007-2008 -
"Between 2004 and 2008, the price of staples such as rice increased by 255% and wheat by 81%…The increased food prices resulted in effective food shortages, as poorer people were no longer able to afford food, and to food riots in a number of countries, ultimately affecting over 100 million people worldwide."
- and asks whether this was a case of a concatenation at work
The global driver underpinning the spikes in food prices was the 127% increase in petroleum, gas and coal prices between 2004-2008 (seeing that energy makes up a huge chunk of food production and transport costs). Partly as a response to the rise in energy prices, both the US and EU launched pro-biofuel policies. These national policies (of, in essence, developed countries) led to a conversion of land from food to biofuel production and further stimulated the swelling of global food prices. Many lower-income countries (including India, Argentina, Russia), on the other hand, responded by placing restrictions on their food exports. Again, national-level policies served to strangle the supply of food to the global market and fueled the spiking prices. Droughts in key production regions also reduced food supplies and added to the price escalation.
So, as the authors write -
"the food price crisis was a global emergency that stemmed from powerful global drivers, high levels of connectivity, and reactive national policies."
- in other words, a definitive concatenated crisis
Dealing with concatenated crises
It is however, when we begin asking ourselves how we can deal with these types of problems, when the fun really begins. A first step would be to improve our scientific understanding of these linked crises. A suite of research areas are proposed by the authors.
• Which local systems are particularly vulnerable to the pressures imposed by global drivers?
• Which thresholds may exist at regional to global-scale (planetary boundaries, sensu Rockström et al. 2009) that may lead to propagating crises?
• Under what circumstances are the effects of crossing local-scale thresholds likely to propagate upward and outward, because of connectivity and interdependence?
• What types of management response at local and regional scales are likely to have undesirable consequences for other regions?
• What types of actions can contain the spread of shocks once they occur (sensu Vespignani 2009), and at what scales are they effective?
Furthermore, developing our capacity to predict when social-ecological systems are about to collapse - either through statistical analysis or monitoring of data in real-time with the help of web-crawlers - could help the prevention of local crises occurring and spilling out.
But, as the authors point out, the inherent complexity of the chain of events causing global, linked crises and the large role random events have in triggering or augmenting them, places a limit to how far we might be able to answer the above questions. So, in other words, we might never get the full answers and understanding of the mechanisms that underlie concatenated crises. Critically, then, humanity needs to develop policy and management responses that are suited to the realities of complex systems and the uncertainties that are always, inevitably involved. Learning from the past, and adapting your behavior based on this learning is a simple, and quite effective, way to navigate through complex problems such as these. But much more is required. A first step is to move quickly away from the illusion that there will be quick-fixes and "ideal" solutions for such events. Instead concatenated crises require flexible, polycentric governance structures that stimulate experimentation, learning and adaptation to constantly changing situations. And in a highly connected era, perhaps a revamp of many transnational institutions is required, to create globally coherent strategies and stimulate more effective cooperation between nations to tackle looming, globally connected crises such as the food price spikes of 2008.
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