Connectivity and resilience

Are you also having a feeling of déjà vu?  The events of the past few months surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic are retelling a story that was told during the 2007-2008 financial crisis.  The characters in the story have different names, but the plot is almost identical.

Viewing our current situation through a lens of complex systems thinking and resilience theory will make the resemblance easier to see.  Over time, complex adaptive systems—ecosystems, for instance—often go through an unpredictable but recognizable and repeating cycle of growth, increasing connectivity, disturbance, collapse and reorganization often depicted by the “lazy eight” adaptive cycle diagram employed by Buzz Holling, Lance Gunderson, and others who contributed to resilience theory.  What is seldom appreciated is that the cycle is shown as a figure-eight rather than just a series of arrows in a circle for a reason.  It’s not simply that a figure-eight looks cooler than a simple circle.  The figure is a plot of an X-Y graph, and the X and Y axes each mean something.

The Adaptive CycleAs complex systems mature, they tend to accumulate “potential” in whatever is the currency of that system—energy and nutrients in an ecosystem, capital in a modern economy.  This is the Y axis of the graph.  At the same time they also develop more effective and a greater number of connections to enable the transmission at that currency.  Connectedness is the X axis of the graph.  Bit by bit, the system becomes more interconnected and more efficient.  The components of the system come to depend more tightly on other particular components of the system and on the continued functioning of the system system as a whole [1].

As connectivity increases—as you move to the right on the graph—tolerance for change declines and the system becomes more and more susceptible to a disturbance triggering a collapse.  Eventually, a lightning bolt, a discarded cigarette or some other trigger will produce a spark at the right time and place, and, in a mature boreal forest that has not experienced fire for decades, that spark ignites a fire which sweeps through the forest and releases and destroys the pent up capital.  Connectivity is broken, the ecosystem experiences a sort of collapse and the door opens for it to reorganize.  If the scale of the fire is not too large, this is part of a healthy, natural cycle.  The forest returns to a similar point in the cycle and, although it will never be exactly the same forest, the cycle repeats.


Economic collapses, pandemics and other types of forest fires

The global economy is also a complex system, and over the last seventy years, it has become increasingly interconnected.  It’s not simply that more goods and services are flowing between countries.  Any friction that might slow the flow of international profits and capital has also been reduced to insignificance.  Property markets, stock markets, bond markets and currency markets have become connected to each other to the point of no longer having meaningful separate identities.  And they have also become inextricably connected across national borders in an increasingly frictionless global economy.  In 2007, a modest slump in real estate prices in one country was enough of a spark to start a wildfire that quickly swept through this overconnected system.

When that happened, it was an opportunity to reorganize the global economy differently, to break some of the connections whose purpose has nothing to do with creating a better world but only serve to make capital flow faster.  Instead, world leaders moved to quickly rebuild the system almost exactly as it was.

When a complex system develops an overabundance of some particular kind of connection, things like forest fires and economic slumps can quickly cascade through the entire system.  Contagious diseases are similar.  They take advantage of connections.  We live in a world where animals are kept together at high densities in intensive livestock operations, where humans and live animals are concentrated into small spaces with each other in “wet markets”, and where on average 100,000 people each day board an airplane to fly somewhere else.  This interconnectedness makes global pandemics inevitable.


Borders and identities

However, systems that are made up of subsystems with diverse and distinct identities are less susceptible to these kinds of cascading collapses.  Physical borders can help to achieve this, as when a major river cuts a through a forest: sometimes that river is a barrier that the fire does not cross.  But borders are never perfect.  In a forest fire, a bit of wind can carry hot embers across the river to continue the fire on the other side; in a pandemic, security and medical personnel, truck drivers and others can carry the infection across a quarantine line.

What is more effective is when complex systems are made up of diverse subsystems whose unique characteristics differentiate them from other parts of the larger system.  A forest fire will not spread so easily when the forest has patches of different ages and different species.  In healthy, diverse forests, fires will still happen but the chain of dominoes has breaks in it so there is no catastrophic collapse.  When connections to the wider system overwhelm local connections, they undermine resilience.  But when local connections create subsystems with their own unique identity, resilience is strengthened.


Déjà vu: the feeling that you’ve let a crisis go to waste before

Like a mature forest at the climax stage that is getting more and more susceptible to fire, or a frictionless, interconnected global economy in which a modest economic downturn in one country cascades into global economic meltdown, our highly interconnected world has made the rapid spread of COVID-19 possible.  What is more worrying, however, is that that the interconnectedness of global travel is itself connected to the global economy.  Forgive the mixed metaphor, but the pandemic has now toppled a series of economic dominoes, igniting a forest fire.  Déjà vu.  What is different now is that the fire threatens to be far more devastating that what happened in 2007-2008.

On the other hand, I’m reminded of the adage, “Never let a good crises go to waste.”  In the adaptive cycle, collapse is followed on its back loop by an opportunity for reorganization.  Our current situation is an opportunity to nudge our interconnected world in a different direction; to start to reconfigure our social, cultural, economic and ecological interconnections; to disconnect and then to reconnect, but to reconnect differently.


Sustainable landscapes and resilience

If we can do this, one objective should be to nurture distinct and diverse subsystems.  When a complex system is made up of distinct, diverse and resilient subsystems, those subsystems confer their resilience on the larger system.  Resilience comes from having connections beyond your local situation while also maintaining distinct and diverse identities.  One approach to this is to think in terms of landscapes.  For our social-ecological landscapes to be resilient, they need to have their own identities.  They need some type of boundary that differentiates them from the wider world.  This does not mean complete autarky and isolation—our world is economically and ecologically and culturally interconnected.  This is a fact of life that is not going away.  However, when economic interactions and cultural identity are dominated by connections to the outside world to the exclusion of local connections, the social-ecological landscape ceases to have an effective identity of its own.  Resilient landscapes require economic relationships that tie people to each other and to the health of their ecosystems.  Buying food locally, generating electrical power locally, and building stuff locally with local resources can all be part of this.Resilience comes from having connections beyond your local situation while also maintaining distinct and diverse identities. One approach to this is to think in terms of landscapes. Click To Tweet

Other kinds of connections that human beings have are culture and identity.  At a global level, we have an abundance of economic connections, but far too few connections of identity and empathy.  One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear is that every person’s well-being is interconnected with everyone else’s, and around the world people are responding in recognition of this interconnectedness.  I stay at home not because I’m afraid of getting sick—if I contract the disease, in all likelihood I’ll be sick for a couple of weeks and then I’ll be fine.  Instead, I’m staying at home to protect vulnerable people in my community.  And the extent to which the pandemic becomes a source of economic hardship and food insecurity will depend on the extent to which the global community adopts this perspective of seeing their own well-being as being inextricably connected to everyone else’s well-being.  This can’t stop at the borders of my city.  What happens in my family over the coming months will depend on what happens in my community and in my country and in the whole world.  The oneness of the humankind, and the connection between my personal well-being and the well-being of the entire human community is now plainly obvious.

But it is not only at the global level where we need to create a new culture and new shared identities; culture and identity can also help to create the distinct and diverse local subsystems that we need for the global system to be more resilient.  When there is a distinct local identity in which people are connected to each other in a community and connected to their local ecosystem, then you are starting to have the components for a unique social-ecological landscape.  What we urgently need now is a way of thinking that is comfortable with multiple overlapping identities—a way of thinking in which people see themselves as being within nature but also distinct from it, as belonging to a community AND as belonging to a nationality AND as a being a citizen of planet Earth, and in which there is no contradiction amongst these loyalties.

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[1] Reference for adaptive cycle diagram: Holling, C. S., and L. H. Gunderson. 2002. Resilience and Adaptive Cycles. Pages 25–62 in L. H. Gunderson and C. S. Holling, editors. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Systems of Humans and Nature. Island Press, Washington, D.C. See also,