The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the fragilities and interdependencies of the modern world’s complex systems, and the challenge of predicting and planning for known threats, let alone the unknown. In this episode of the “Great Unraveling?” series, Nafeez Ahmed joins Laurie Laybourn-Langton to explore some of these dynamics and what they might mean for how we can navigate what could be a dramatic phase shift across society.
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, founding editor and chief writer for INSURGE intelligence, and ‘System Shift’ columnist at VICE’s science magazine Motherboard. He is the author of a number of books, including Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence, published by Springer.
The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed the fragilities in our economies and societies, and highlighted how efficiency is often prioritized above resilience. Meanwhile, the worsening environmental crisis has led to a range of voices warning that fragilities will be tested to the limit by worsening natural shocks.
This episode explores these fragilities in more detail, and the possible impacts of environmental crisis and other problems into the future. And to do so I’m joined by Dr. Nafeez Ahmed, Executive Director of the System Shift Lab, research fellow with the Schumacher Institute, and Nafeez writes regularly about systems change at Vice’s science magazine, Motherboard. He’s also the author of a number of books, including Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence, which is published by Springer.
Nafeez, welcome. Let’s start with the question about the coronavirus pandemic, can you give us some ideas about how the pandemic and the shock that it’s brought to our societies has helped us understand the fragility that we have across our social and economic systems, particularly at a global level?
So, good question. I mean, I think the first quite obvious thing is the way in which a tiny microscopic entity has managed to bring the vast captains of industry in a way to its knees in a way that probably has gone far beyond even what some of the preparedness and planning that has gone on in relation to pandemics. It’s really taken us by surprise.
If you look at the planning literature, there’s been some anticipation of huge disruption and things like that. But I think that the scale of it, the long lasting nature of it, and the complexity of the impacts on so many different areas of our society, has taken us all aback to some extent. We’ve found ourselves quite deeply unprepared, despite lots of preparation.
It’s ironic that that’s the United States and the UK, which were previously considered to be the best planners for a pandemic, have actually had the worst death rates. I think this is because of the reality that one of the things that’s been exposed is the tightly coupled nature of our social, political, and economic systems.
It’s really highlighted the extent to which you cannot really escape. That there is this vast interconnection between these different systems. These shocks that happen in one place, and in one sector, are rapidly transmitted across other societies and other sectors, in ways that are very, very difficult to predict.
I think we’ve been reminded of some of the things that we know about chaos, and complexity. But we’re reminded of how fast and how rapidly and unpredictably those things can unfold. And no one can really predict the results of an event like this.
I think that one of the biggest learning points is that when something like this happens, it’s inherently impossible to really detect where it’s going to go because of that complexity. Different things can happen in different ways. But I think what’s quite particularly alarming, and I think, perhaps not so much on people’s radar, is the way in which this has impacted some of the critical sectors that we consider to be important for delivering public goods and services and keeping the show on the road.
For the energy sector, the oil industry sector has been hit in a massive way. If you look at pandemic preparedness planning, the oil sector was not something that would ever emerge in discussions about impacts. It was public health, workers, workforce issues, things like that, but the energy industry, no, not something that anyone thought about. It’s been massively impacted and it’s exposed again, unsustainabilities, lack of economic sustainability in the profitability margins, and unsustainabilities in the way in which oil industries are structured. All sorts of problems in that industry have been exposed.
There is this big question as to whether that industry can actually survive in coming years and decades in a lower-demand environment. That too, has raised all sorts of questions about economic growth structures. The profitability of businesses, and industries overall, whether they can survive in that environment.
Of course, there’s all sorts of ramifying consequences in terms of the impact on our food systems and our manufacturing systems, which again, are generally based on far flung supply chains, interconnected global distribution networks. And what we’re again seeing is that all of these things are now big question marks over how we can sustain these in an environment with… oil may not be so available in the near future. We have this strange situation where there is a huge amount of cheap oil that there’s no demand for, and it’s so cheaply available. And the profits for the industry have plummeted to such a degree, that the very survival of these industries and their ability to continue producing is now at stake.
There is this strange nexus, where there’s an oil glut, which could be a precursor for a future of scarcity, and where that goes, and how that impacts prices and the dynamics in our economies. Nobody actually knows. We have no idea. We’re still trying to figure this out.
So if we conceive of the coronavirus pandemic as a shock that is then rippled out, often in unexpected ways across our interconnected systems, let’s talk a bit about how growing environmental shots can do the same. I know this is something that you’ve often written about, as we look towards a future in which we’re going to see the increasing negative consequences of high global temperatures, of other damage to parts of the environment. What kind of system-wide knock-on effects do we anticipate coming from growing environmental destabilization?
Well, I think it’s useful to situate the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of a wider process of systemic decline, which has actually been accelerating. It’s not something that is beginning now, something that’s probably started several decades ago. And there’s lots of indicators of that.
There are measures such as net energy—EROI, energy return on investment—from our energy system, which we know, looking at all the global studies that have been done, the energy return on investment from global fossil fuels has begun to decline over several decades. That’s correlated with lots of other things such as a decline in the rate of GDP growth, which economists describe as secular stagnation.
But these are longer-term trends, which preceded things like big eruptions, like the 2008 financial crash, and things like that.
So I think what’s useful to do is to take a step back and say a lot of these processes began around the 1960s, 1970s, which coincides with a period when, say, an NGO like the Global Footprint Network would have said, we really hit that point of overshoot. Overshoot is a concept which tries to get at the fact that we’ve got to a point where the rate at which we’re consuming natural resources is overshooting their ability to renew, and the rate that they take, the time they take to renew. I think some of the stats are something like we’re consuming the equivalent of one and a half planets, something like that and it’s only getting worse.
And what’s interesting is a lot of these inflection points where we started seeing these exponential growth rates and certain things all kicked off around the 1970s. So we see the EROI really started to go down at that point. We see the rate of economic growth for industrialized nations beginning to decline and accelerating. There’s also a correlation with political destabilization and civil unrest.
Again, these correlations are complicated. We don’t know how they work causally. I mean, I don’t want to make a simplistic reductive argument. But the reality is, they have been happening around the same time.
So if we take that big picture lens, what that suggests is looking at the planetary boundaries framework that’s been developed by a number of climate scientists who say, look, there are something like nine of these really key planetary boundaries around nitrogen and land use change, and key ecosystems where if you cross that, that metric too far, you’re at risk of destabilizing it to a point where not only are there irreversible changes, but what they call the safe operating space for human civilization begins to erode. It decreases. And I think what we’re starting to see is that process is happening further and further.
In the 2008 financial crash there was one episode that we saw before, that was correlated with many other things. There was a sequence of climate events, big food basket failures which led up to the Arab Spring, in 2011. Obviously, we had the Occupy movement uprising shortly before then. And we’ve had a weak reoccurrence of the Arab Spring type uprisings in recent years as well, where people thought that okay, we’ve finished with that episode now, but 10 years later, people are coming out on the streets again. And there’s been further destabilization. That’s been linked with all sorts of things going on in Syria, and elsewhere.
But, again, the complicated nature of that, when we look at some of the studies which show that well, there was a drought cycle component to the Syria crisis, which obviously had an impact on Brexit, and the Trump elections because of the mass migration of people from the Middle East, onto the shores of Europe, and the way that that impacted politics here gave rise to these xenophobic movements.
I guess what I’m trying to get at is this sense that, within this very complex liberal system that we’re in, we’re seeing these amplifying feedback processes that we really don’t have a handle on. We barely really understand those complexities. And we’re only beginning to understand. That’s how our socioeconomic political systems are being destabilized because we’re not really able to see those connecting points. And who would connect with the Trump elections, the Brexit elections, with something going on far-flung in the Middle East—in a drought cycle in Syria, for example? It’s not a connecting factor that we’d always think about.
But I think there’s those correlations of that. What that suggests to me is that the COVID-19 pandemic is really an early warning signal of how wide ranging and unpredictable these kinds of episodes are. And, if you go back five years earlier, when I think the planetary boundaries folks published one of the seminal analyses in the science journal, and they said that when the land use change was one of the boundaries that we’re seeing extreme risk, and five years on, we’ve now had a pandemic.
And there are multiple reports from the UN and elsewhere, pointing out that deforestation, excessive land use change, obviously, driven by this giant consumption machine that we have, has exacerbated this risk of zoonotic diseases. And we’ve had these warnings of pandemics over the last few decades. And now we’re here, what was previously potentially science fiction has now become our reality.
So in the next couple of decades, what we’re going to see is that this confluence of amplifying feedbacks and dynamics that we’re seeing now will likely accelerate on a business as usual trajectory, but in ways that we can’t predict. They will be very inherently difficult to predict. And I think this is the thing—a lot of the scientists who are looking at pandemics knew that a pandemic would hit at some point somehow. They didn’t know what kind, they weren’t sure where, and they weren’t sure when.
And that’s the kind of unknown that we’re walking into… that we know that there could be a further economic disaster, we know that there could be a collapse of food systems, we know that there could be a failure of our energy systems at some point. These are all major crises that have been warned about. We also know that that there is a heightened risk of pandemics if we continue.
So I think that there’s a risk of all of these different discrete things going on. And of course, there’s also the geopolitical context, the unpredictable impacts on our societies. Like it’s the year of the Black Lives Matter uprising, emerging in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. And the reality that clearly that part of the pandemic has brought out the grievances and disillusionment and long-standing inequalities that have existed for many, many years.
That is probably going to continue. I would imagine that we will see a future of continued political unrest as and when some of these economic impacts—the impacts of more business failures, retail sector failures, industries failing more, and more unemployment, people are not able to see a way out. That kind of scenario is something that in the near term is very likely. That we’ll see further destabilization without the right sort of approach to mitigate and address those consequences.
So I see a lot of this playing out in an accelerated fashion on a business as usual trajectory. And I think it’s important to bear in mind that kind of trajectory is one that, as I said before, is a wild card future. It’s not one that you can really predict or really plan for. You can’t plan for this process. And it’s important to frame that against the wider systems, which recognizes that this is really the unfolding of a deeper process of a system in decline.
It’s an existing system, which has essentially run out of steam. And it can’t really survive anymore. And it’s reaching that point of fundamental transition. And one of the concepts I always use is this idea of a phase shift, that we’re really in a transition point to what could be the emergence of a new system.
I think that’s where it’s important to center our attention. While there is a lot of failure that’s going to come within this system, there is this massive opportunity for something new to emerge. And when we look at the lifecycle of previous systems and different civilizations, but also learning from the life cycle of different ecosystems in history—and I’m thinking about the work of C.S. Holling and his Adaptive Cycle theory, which he drew from the study of different ecosystems—we have a lot of good reason to suspect that while we’re moving down this trajectory of decline.
As that happens, there is a breaking up of the old power structures and old ways of thinking, which opens up new opportunities in a way that perhaps 10, 20, 30 years ago would have literally been impossible. And the radical thinking and radical policies that were once, that we need actually to get through this to the other side. Are now going to be a lot more palatable a lot easier to get out there. But, we need to roll up the sleeves.
And I think that’s a great note to finish on. Nafeez, thank you so much for joining us.