What Happens When a Cascade of Crises Collide?
The simultaneity of crises we’re experiencing hints that something else is also happening — risk synchronization. Complex and largely unrecognized causal links among the world’s economic, social and ecological systems may be causing many risks to go critical at nearly the same time. If so, the apparent simultaneity isn’t just a temporary coincidence; it’s likely to persist and could ultimately overwhelm the capacity of society to adapt, and push some places into outright collapse, as we may be witnessing right now in Haiti.
But we don’t really know because, generally, experts at evaluating risk have deeply specialized and siloed knowledge — in economics, for example, or epidemiology. This knowledge rarely translates into detailed understandings of other systemic risks at play and how they might affect one another in turn. So, for example, while specialists in climate change’s economic impacts know something about how climate heating aggravates economic inequality within and between societies, they know very little about how it impacts ideological extremism. And they give virtually no attention to the possibility that causation might operate in the reverse direction, too — that inequality and extremism might worsen climate heating.
Yet it’s likely all these processes are now operating. Climate heating is harming people’s health and causing weather disasters, affecting infrastructure and food production all over the planet. In poorer countries, these changes are constraining economic growth and widening existing economic inequalities. Lower growth and bigger inequalities, wherever they happen, intensify ideological extremism. And that extremism is likely making it harder to build national and international consensus around cutting greenhouse gas emissions, allowing the heating problem to steadily worsen.
These sorts of vicious cycles are what complexity scientists call self-reinforcing “positive feedbacks.” We tend to see bits and pieces of a causal loop, but not the whole thing. For that reason, we urgently need to identify and monitor these feedbacks and ferret out those still unrecognized to establish whether they are synchronizing the world’s systemic risks. Businesses do similar kinds of risk analysis by diagraming causal loops in the dynamic systems affecting them. In this case, the system is the planet itself. It goes back to the ecologist Barry Commoner’s first rule of ecology — everything is connected to everything else — but with a crucial amendment: some kinds of connections matter a lot more than others.
We propose a worldwide scientific collaboration to identify the causal mechanisms operating among these risks. This collaboration would consist of a global consortium of nationally funded institutes. It would be dedicated, first, to studying mechanisms that are amplifying, accelerating and synchronizing global systemic risks and, second, to determining practical ways humanity might intervene. It would also look for ways these feedbacks might be harnessed to tip key economic, social, and ecological systems toward better outcomes.
This consortium would act as the international scientific complement to the Futures Lab proposed by the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, which is intended to integrate humanity’s “work around forecasting, megatrends and risks.” And it would report regularly to both the participating governments and the global public with the explicit aim of galvanizing action to address the polycrisis.
It’s vitally important to get this kind of initiative underway. “Business as usual,” Mr. Guterres has warned, “could result in breakdown of the global order, into a world of perpetual crisis and winner-takes-all.”
Thomas Homer-Dixon is the executive director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University in British Columbia. Johan Rockström is a director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and professor in earth system science at the University of Potsdam.