Towards a Resilient Global Economy

If I had to pick a single word to describe the global economy today, it would be fragile. Policy makers and business leaders have actively built a system that destroys the environment in order to produce profits in the short term — by distributing goods and services across a global supply chain that is designed to minimize costs and maximize financial returns — while relying on structures that are profoundly susceptible to disruption.

This is done by dodging societal responsibility through a shadow network of tax havens (building up debt in the nations of the world and increasing wealth inequality); avoiding environmental protections by choosing to operate in countries where government officials can be bought on the black market (damaging the ecological commons on which all life depends); and creating deregulated zones where worker’s rights are minimal or non-existent (sowing the seeds of upheaval by keeping large numbers of people in a state of desperation).

All of this is done to extract as much monetary wealth as possible for investors who don’t care about the suffering they cause to those around them, as I described in How will the 99% deal with 70 Million Psychopaths? earlier this year. This economic system has been built up gradually over the last few centuries. Yet it is not built to last. It is prone to manipulation by financial managers and can be destabilized to the point of collapse and ruin, as we saw in 2008 when speculative finance wreaked havoc upon the nations of the world.

Even more poignant are the impacts due to flooding, wild fires, droughts, and heat waves — not to mention the larger threats that come from major earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and volcanoes — that can send ripples of harm across the many interconnected social systems of the world without warning. With a globally interconnected civilization like ours, these threats can create ripples that are orders of magnitude larger than the events from which they sprang. And human activities are causing them to occur with greater frequency and intensity.

We are vulnerable to disruptions of unknown severity and duration at all times. Tomorrow a new bird flu could shut down our international airports, just as the ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano did in 2010. And there is no way of knowing when such disruptions will come to an end after they start. It is this profound vulnerability that I would like to address in calling for a new metric to characterize the health and stability of our economic system — that of Global Resilience.

Resilience is the capacity for a system to absorb disruptions without losing key functionality. The human body, as one example, is resilient against parasitic viruses like influenza when it bolsters a strong immune response and preserves the vital functions of circulation, digestion, mobility, and consciousness. By contrast, it is not resilient against a physical blow to the brain stem that quickly produces a vegetative state or death. Resilience is the dynamic repose of the system that enables it to mitigate disruptions or adapt to them in a timely manner.

We need a global economy that is resilient against environmental change, political upheaval, and the various network effects of multiply connected systems. And yet our politicians all-too-often focus on simplistic solutions like deregulation or cutting taxes, ignoring the immense complexity of the world as it really is and making the situation more dire by increasing our vulnerability to systemic risk with these actions. We need robust infrastructure (e.g. roads, courts, hospitals, schools, etc.) and a social capacity for handling complexity that is nuanced, subtle, and riddled with surprises. This means we need our citizenry and our institutions to be capable of managing the unknown (and often unknowable) linkages between diverse and evolving patterns of activity.

I realize that this is a tall order. In a time when authoritarian ideology is on the rise, partly due to the fact that many people feel anxious and insecure about the accelerating changes unfolding around them, it seems unlikely that enough people will take on the challenging task of learning to think in evolutionary and dynamic terms about social, economic, political, and natural systems. And yet this is what these times call for us to do.

Throughout the last year, I have been involved in the design of regional and global institutions that will combine scientific knowledge about the dynamic Earth with visualization tools that capture the complex interactions across the natural environment and society. This work is intended to tackle the full complexities of global change head on and characterize the resilience (or lack thereof) for cities, bioregions, nations, and the globe. We recognize that a Global Resilience metric will require that massive amounts of data be integrated and simulated with the best numerical models of regional entities (e.g. river systems, fault lines, land use patterns, urban development, and so on) and global phenomena (climate change, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, plate tectonics, etc.).

Only when a holistic understanding is gained can we truly define and measure resilience.

An early attempt has been formulated by the Stockholm Resilience Centre — the Planetary Boundaries Framework — which identifies a set of nine thresholds that, if crossed, will make the planet unlivable for humans. Naturally, we don’t want this to happen. But there are less dramatic, but equally serious, risks that need to be understood if we are to put safeguards in place and respond effectively to shocks across our societal systems. Long before such an event as the collapse of algae in the world’s oceans (which would ripple up the food chain and ultimately wipe us out), we’ll have to contend with more severe weather and natural disasters that can have catastrophic global impacts as they ripple across our supply chains and harm communities the world over. It is this more subtle fragility that under girds our civilization and is notoriously difficult to characterize in a robust manner.

I am seeking like-minded people who want to see the peoples of the world construct a resilient global economy that is built to last and embodies the characteristic features of sustainability — namely that it is in dynamic equilibrium with the world’s ecosystems into the foreseeable future. In this time when nothing less will suffice, those of us who grapple with the epic challenges must come together so that we can collaborate and innovate on a scale that matches that of the threat. Our civilization is now called into question. The world may soon find itself devoid of human life. No more music, no more poems, and no more deep inquiries into the nature of reality. We must conjure an empathic surge worthy of the moment and transform the economic paradigm that shapes our collective future.

This is the challenge that is now before us. Now is the time to come together and pool our resources — material and creative — to address this fundamental need. It is incumbent upon us all that our best knowledge be directed towards the safeguarding of humanity and the flourishing life supports of the planet on which our surviving and thriving ultimately depend.