Beddington: World faces perfect storm in 2030

March 25, 2009

In a statement which has already gotten much press elsewhere, the UK’s chief scientist Prof. John Beddington suggests we face a “perfect storm”of crisis drivers by 2030.

The Guardian reports, 

A “perfect storm” of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions, the UK government’s chief scientist will warn tomorrow.

“We head into a perfect storm in 2030, because all of these things are operating on the same time frame,” Beddington told the Guardian.

“If we don’t address this, we can expect major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration, as people move out to avoid food and water shortages,” he added.

It is music to our ears to hear such well placed politicians and scientists reflecting the realities of tomorrow’s complex, interlinked and massively vulnerable world.


US researchers find disaster relief laws unsuitable for modern threats

March 25, 2009

New York University Professor Mitchell Moss suggests in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, that US Federal disaster relief legislation is dangerously out of date and must be reformed to provide for rapid relief after a catastrophe.

The paper argues that the main US Federal Disaster laws, in the form of the Stafford Act, is too cumbersome to be of use for today’s complex crises.  The report’s author argues that the laws:


  • Not recognizing 21st century threats such as chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological attacks or accidents as legal grounds for a major disaster declaration by the President; 
  • Fail to establish a difference between the scale of rural and urban disaster – the Stafford Act offers the same level of aid for a blizzard in a rural community as it does for a major earthquake in a metropolis. 

It goes on to suggest that US lawmakers should,

  • Amend the definition of a “major disaster” to recognize 21st century threats such as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks and accidents; 
  • Create a level of disaster specifically for “catastrophes” to cover incidents such as Hurricane Katrina and September 11 and to provide increased levels of aid beyond that provided at the “major disaster” levels

The press release can be found here and the full paper here.

Nicholas Stern, “Politicians aren’t getting the message”

March 13, 2009

Guardian reporters reflect on Nicholas Stern’s comments;

Do politicians really know what will happen if we hit 3, 4, 5 degree rises in temperature?  I don’t think they do.  The politicians can tell you we can still hit a target of 2 degrees.  The scientists won’t.  People here are saying that 2 degrees is gone, we’re going to be lucky to limit rise to 3 degrees, but actually we’re looking more like 4 degrees.

4 degrees would be extinction for huge numbers of species, massive drought and famine for millions of people.

Stern himself is quoted:

Do the politicians understand just how difficult it could be? Just how devastating four, five, six degrees centigrade would be? I think not yet. Looking back, the Stern review underestimated the risks and underestimated the damage from inaction.

New maps of risk show USA and China to top global ranking for economic loss due to natural disasters

March 11, 2009


From the press release of the risk mapping firm, Maplecroft:

In 2008 natural disasters cost the world US$200 billion. Global maps, produced by risk specialists Maplecroft, show the United States and China to bear about 90% of this burden and be the countries most susceptible to economic losses.

Whilst the human impact of natural disasters is predominantly concentrated in developing countries, with 90% of deaths occurring in these regions, the increase in both frequency and severity of climate related disasters is increasingly impacting upon developed and emerging economies including China.

So far this century, more than 800,000 people have been killed by natural disasters, more than 2 billion have been affected, and damage costs total over US$800 billion. Whilst disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes can not be prevented, we can reduce the risk they pose to business and society by reducing our vulnerability. We can do this by mapping and assessing the risk, being better prepared and responding more effectively when potentially disastrous natural events occur. 

A PDF of the full press release can be found here.

Researchers link drought and urbanization to “perfect storm”

March 11, 2009

Researchers in a NASA-funded study have found that a rare mix of interacting conditions were responsible for a recent unprecedented urban tornado in Downtown Atlanta, Georgia, USA. 

One of the main agendas of the Humanitarian Futures Programme is to help organisations prepare for complex, interconnected crises unlike they have ever experienced before.  We call these synchronous, sequential and simultaneous failures, defined below:

  • Synchronous failures – major systems failures, eg, energy collapse, affecting infrastructure and basic survival mechanisms in transnational contexts.
  • Sequential crises – series of crises “feeding off” each other, like falling dominoes cascading into each other and magnifying their effects.
  • Simultaneous crises – major crises occurring at the same time, stretching existing resources and abilities to cope.

The downtown tornado in Atlanta (CNN coverage here) is an excellent example of how such crises can occur.  Researchers studying how and why this rare tornado occurred write,

“The Atlanta tornado, though forecasted well, caught us by surprise because it evolved rapidly under very peculiar conditions during a drought and over a downtown area,” said Dev Niyogi, an assistant professor of regional climatology at Purdue and lead author of the modeling study.

The press release can be found here.

Is collapse anxiety becoming collapse excitement? And will it become collapse fatigue?

March 10, 2009

“The Great Restructing”, “The Great Disruption”, “The Great Compression”, “The Long Emergency”, “Metacrisis”, are all terms floating around the global conversation these days in an effort to describe the magnitude and severity of the crisis we may be facing.

After years of “preaching to the choir” about the general riskiness and collapse-prone nature of our global geo-political infrastructure, it is amazing to see how rapidly terms previously confined to fringe nutcases and global collapse scholars have become part of the mainstream dialogue.

For example, see Thomas Friedman’s long, considered post in the New York Times:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

Not the kind of thing one is used to hearing discussed on the evening news, is it?  

Others are using similar terms.  Umar Haque has called it the “Great Compression”, arguing that most of today’s economy doesn’t create true value and therefore won’t stand the test of the trying times we’re now entering.  He referred to our situation as a “metacrisis” in the “zombieconomy”.  Jeff Jarvis calls it the “The Great Restructuring”, then making a series of fairly extreme statements suggesting, “entire swaths and even sectors of the economy will disappear or will change so much they might as well disappear…”

These are bracing sentiments, even for humanitarian and development organisations used to dealing with so called “normal disasters”.  Why the sudden change in tone?  Alex Steffan reflected on this question over at and suggests that,

…the crisis we face is more than a merely ecological or economic crisis. It’s also a geo-political crisis, one which is demanding that older concepts of national sovereignty and international law stretch in new directions to accommodate the need for global responses our truly global problems; it is a social crisis, which itself demands new understandings of our interconnectedness, and of the stake each of us has in the lives of one another’s children; it is, as well, a cultural crisis, where we are being forced to confront the emptiness that is so often found at the core of our new prosperity.

Kevin Kelly suggest that the popularization of concepts of collapse has deeper, psychological resonance with Alex Steffan’s “core emptiness”.  Calling us all “Collapsitarians” (a term popularised by James Howard Kunstler in a New Yorker article here), he writes,

The idea of progress has been slowly dying. I think progress lost its allure at the ignition of the first atom bomb at the end of WWII. It has been losing luster since. Even more recently the future has become boring and unfashionable. No one wants to live in the future. 

The jet packs don’t work, and the Daily Me is full of spam.  Nobody finds the Future attractive any longer. 

The only thing left to believe in is collapse. That’s not boring! 

The end of civilization would be terribly exciting, and unlike any future we could imagine, probably more likely. Dystopias are a favorite science fiction destination now. We all are collapsitarians these days.

All of this is sparking blogs and blogs worth of urgent excitement from all over the Internet.  Quotes such as “WE URGENTLY NEED TO RE-ADJUST OUR FEEDBACK LOOPS!”  seem commonplace these days, as even the Great and the Good at Davos begin to admit that we’re in the midst of radical systemic change and no one quite knows where it will end up.

So the question is, is collapse anxiety transforming into collapse excitement?  And will it soon become collapse fatigue as the media cycles onward?

Creating organisational resilience, Part II

March 5, 2009

UPDATE – There is a second paper of interest which supports the findings of our previous past (permalink), from same journal issue.  The paper, entitled, “Enhancing Organizational Resilience Through Emergency Planning: Learnings from Cross-Sectoral Lessons” (full text PDF), compares “lessons learned” from post-disaster learning exercises for a series of major disasters in the UK and has interesting implications for Somers’ work above.

 The authors found that common themes among post-disaster feedback exercises were:

  1. the importance of process in emergency preparedness
  2. persistent underestimation of possibility and severity of accidents occurring again
  3. the value of creating a “safety culture” through-out the organisation
  4. ambiguity in the role, purpose, and efficacy of command and control structures
  5. the need to communicate better with the media and public
  6. the importance and general lack of attentiont for attending to the “long term welfare” of crisis responders and victims, and
  7. a general need for training disaster responders in non-technical skills (such as situation awareness, better communication, etc.)

Of these, we find the first two the most interesting and important, vis-a-vis the work of the Humanitarian Futures Programme.  The need to communicate and interact better with non-traditional actors, including the media, general public, and academia is also particularly important.

Creating resilient organisations more important than creating good plans, researchers find

March 5, 2009

Researchers find that disaster plans do not produce better responses to surprising crises, but that the processes of preparing them, does.

A researcher from the Arizona State University, Scott Somers, published a somewhat interesting  article in the latest issue of the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management (abstract, full text PDF).  In it he reports the results of a survey of 96 public works directors in the United States, evaluating each organisation on their level of crisis preparedness, crises preparation techniques, and organisational flexibility and resilience.

He found that traditional crises management approaches that create detailed, step-by-stop operating procedures produced less resilient organisations than expected.  Instead, he argues that it is more effective to, “create internal processes and organizational structures that build latent resilience within organizations so that they demonstrate positive adaptive behaviors when under stress.”

What does this mean?  Somers evaluated each organisation on six dimensions:

  • Level of perceived risk
  • Degree of managerial information seeking
  • Organisational structure
  • Amount of continuity planning
  • Levels of participation, and
  • Departmental accreditation

The strongest correlate to organisational resilience (by his measures) was the presence of strong continuity planning.  Somers also found that managers who actively sought out varied and diverse information sources were found to be more likely to lead resilient organisations.  Somewhat surprisingly, the research also found that managers which had higher levels of perceived risk were only slightly more likely to head more resilient organisations, and that organisational structure (in terms of levels of hiearchy in the agency) did not correlate very well.

What does this mean?  Somers concludes by suggesting that the plan itself is not as important as the capacity-building process of planning.  This seems to be due to the nature of complex crises; they are often a surprise, often something that cannot be trained for, and often disrupt traditional communication and decision-making frameworks.  Thus any plan which requires following “standard operating procedures” will be less flexible and adaptable than those which encourage more innovative, adaptive behaviour.

The paper concludes by suggesting that highly resilient organisations exhibit the following traits:

  • Teams are trained to systematically improvise solutions
  • Employees are encouraged to address problems with minimal supervisor intervention
  • Has staff whom constantly gather information and consider consequences of alternative actions
  • Fills its key positions with generalists, not specialists
  • Has low reliance on supervisor-centric knowledge and gives its employees access to and involvement in critical knowledge
  • Has work teams which are authorised to purchase materials and access resources without centralised approval

Compare this template to any humanitarian organisation you’ve dealt with lately; or any organisation for that matter.  How does it map?  Comments welcome.

Accelerated swarming; Mumbai is just the beginning

March 3, 2009

Military theorist John Arquilla (author of Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy and several other excellent conflict and war studies books) argues in the New York Times that Mumbai style terrorists attacks are likely to become more frequent and more successful in the coming decade.

“The basic concept”, he writes, “is that hitting several targets at once, even with just a few fighters at each site, can cause fits for elite counterterrorist forces that are often manpower-heavy, far away and organized to deal with only one crisis at a time.”

Arqilla cites current US counter terrorist strategy that plans for up to three sites being simultaneously hit and using “overwhelming force” against the terrorists, “which probably means mustering as many as 3,000 ground troops to the site.”  He suggests that in an age of force multiplication, networks, and flexible fighting styles, this is the wrong strategy and doesn’t bode well for security in modern megacities.

Nightmare possibilities include synchronized assaults on several shopping malls, high-rise office buildings or other places that have lots of people and relatively few exits. Another option would be to set loose half a dozen two-man sniper teams in some metropolitan area — you only have to recall the havoc caused by the Washington sniper in 2002 to imagine how huge a panic a slightly larger version of that form of terrorism would cause.

John Robb over at GlobalGuerillas agrees.  He writes,

The reason we will see more swarming is due to the pervasive influence of decentralized organizational forms, like open source insurgency, on warfare’s evolution.  Swarming is a characteristic of these loosely connected organizations.

Robb suggests we’ll be more likely to more sophisticated and ambitious attacks soon, which “ventually attempt complete and sustained urban takedowns”.  Scary thinking, and while Robb argues there is little we can do, Arquilla suggests using similiar tactics will be an effective countermeasure.  These include smaller, more flexible, less centrally controlled response teams with more individual autonomy and less connection to HQ.

Implications for humanitarianism?  Expect more Mumbai-style actions in your home town soon.  Just as small, flexible, semi-autonmous rapid response teams could be needed for a military response, might the same model work for humanitarian response?

Orlov on social collapse at the Long Now

February 17, 2009

Grumpy, humorous, tongue-in-cheek, survivalist predictions for the eminent arrival of the Former United States of America.

Orlov just gave a typically grumpy, humorous, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek presentation at the Long Now Foundation.  Boing Boing, Global Guerillas and others have highlighted his speech, which is probably gave him the most web coverage he’s had in a while.

In a 2006 presentation, “Closing the ‘Collapse Gap': the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US,” Orlov first laid out his USSR / USA empire collapse comparison that would later become his book, Reinventing Collapse: the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the USA.

Orlov argues that the USA is vulnerable to the kind of economic collapse experienced by the former USSR.  He cites huge deficits, foreign military entanglements, and the unsustainablilty of its suburban lifestyles.  Mix this with possible climate shocks, financial market volatility, and anything weird like suicide bombers, avian flu pandemic and you’ve got an interesting situation.

The kinds of things Orlov expects after financial collapse will be very familiar to humanitarian workers.  Shortages of fuel, food, medicine and consumer items; electric, gas and water outages; hyperinflation; economic disruption, joblessness, vagrancy; increased criminal and black market activities; transport disruption.  He suggests that America should not expect “any grand rescue plans, innovative technology programs, or miracles of social cohesion.”

HFP isn’t in a position to comment on the veracity of his argument.  Instead we find the emergence of social collapse discussions in mainstream media tremendously fascinating.  Several commentators argue against spreading these memes because they could become self-fulfilling prophecies.  Others argue that they are important and overdue wake up calls.

What would happen to the humanitarian community, including those it is intended to serve, should there be such a large scale fiscal and political meltdown?

UPDATE – There is a very good summary of Orlov’s book over at the OilDrum, which can be found here.


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