Collapse dynamics: a lecture on complex change in social systems

June 16, 2009

Noah Raford, a contributor to this blog and consultant with HFP, posts this video and slides from a recent lecture on collapse and social transition he gave at the LSE Complexity Programme.

Video of the talk can be found here, thanks to our good friend Vinay Gupta:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Thanks to Professor Eve Mittleton-Kelly and all those who attended from the Collapsonomics group.

US electric grid has been penetrated by spies

April 23, 2009

The Wall Street Journal reports on vulnerabilities in the US electric and infrastructure grids.  Another emerging threat facing complex, interconnected urban environments.

From the article:

“The Chinese have attempted to map our infrastructure, such as the electrical grid,” said a senior intelligence official. “So have the Russians.”

The espionage appeared pervasive across the U.S. and doesn’t target a particular company or region, said a former Department of Homeland Security official. “There are intrusions, and they are growing,” the former official said, referring to electrical systems. “There were a lot last year.”

Many of the intrusions were detected not by the companies in charge of the infrastructure but by U.S. intelligence agencies, officials said. Intelligence officials worry about cyber attackers taking control of electrical facilities, a nuclear power plant or financial networks via the Internet.

Authorities investigating the intrusions have found software tools left behind that could be used to destroy infrastructure components, the senior intelligence official said. He added, “If we go to war with them, they will try to turn them on.”

Officials said water, sewage and other infrastructure systems also were at risk.

It doesn’t take much imagination to forecast such an attack may occur in any major first world city, potentially in combination with other forms of sabotage or terrorist action.  Full article here.

Somali Pirates Attacking Food Aid Ships

April 19, 2009

The Humanitarian Relief blog has a great news round up of recent pirate attacks on ships carrying IFP aid to various parts of the world.   


Over the past two weeks, the pirates have attacked three ships carrying food for the World Food Program and other aid groups.  The most notorious incident was the April 8th pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama, including the US Navy’s dramatic rescue of Captain Richard Phillips five days later.

The ship was carrying food aid destined for Kenya, Somalia, Uganda and Rwanda.

Then, last Tuesday, pirates captured the Sea Horse, a ship heading to India to load food destined for Somalia. 

That same day, pirates also attacked the ship Liberty Sun, which had just offloaded food in Sudan.  (The Liberty Sun was able to escape – to read emails sent by a crew member during the fighting, see here.)

Thanks to Michael for the round-up!

New theory for largest known extinction in the history of the Earth: climate change

April 6, 2009


The culprit?  Climate change.

About 250 million years ago, nearly 90 percent of the animal and plant species on land became extinct. Previously it was thought that volcanic eruptions, the impacts of asteroids, etc. was the cause.  

Russian researchers have found evidence that airborne pollutants from dried giant salt lakes may have been the real cause, releasing “halogenated gases [which] changed the atmospheric composition so dramatically that vegetation was irretrievably damaged.”

What does this mean?  As temperatures changed, massive salt-water lakes began to dry up, causing the air to mix with salt and form dangerous compounds previously thought created only in industrial processes.  These toxic gases damaged plants, wiping out the forests and plains, with animal life following soon there-after.

From the press release:

In their current publication the authors explain the similarities between the complex processes of the CO2-cycle in the Permian Age as well as between global warming from that time and at present… Forecasts predict an increase in the surface areas of deserts and salt lakes due to climate change. That is why the researchers expect that the effects of these halogenated gases will equally increase.

According to the forecast from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), increasing temperatures and aridity due to climate change will also speed up desertification, increasing with it the number and surface area of salt seas, salt lagoons and salt marshlands. Moreover, this will then lead to an increase in naturally formed halogenated gases. The phytotoxic effects of these substances become intensified in conjunction with other atmospheric pollutants and at the same time increasing dryness and exponentiate the eco-toxicological consequences of climate change.

Arguments for and against climate tipping points

April 5, 2009


The New York Times has an interesting summary on the debate over climate “tipping points” amongst some scientists.

Climate tipping points, such as the collapse of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation system, are a fascinating and attention grabbing aspect of climate change science.  They bring to mind images of walls of water off the coast of New York, rushing in to destroy civilization as we know it overnight.

Despite their drama, scientists generally argue that relatively little is known about them and that which is known suggests that they are unlikely to occur overnight.  They could occur within our lifetimes, however, if warming trends continue.  And they could have just as devastating effect on our civilization as a wall of water 100 meters high.

State of the science

The most well known work on tipping points comes from Prof Tim Lenton of the School of Environmental Sciences and colleagues at the Postdam Institute of Climate Impact Research (PIK), Carnegie Mellon University, Newcastle University and Oxford University.

They have a “short list”  of nine tipping elements, all of them could be tipped within the next 100 years.  The nine tipping elements and the time it would take to tip are:


  • Melting of Arctic sea-ice (approx 10 years)
  • Decay of the Greenland ice sheet (more than 300 years)
  • Collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet (more than 300 years)
  • Collapse of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation (approx 100 years)
  • Increase in the El Nino Southern Oscillation (approx 100 years)
  • Collapse of the Indian summer monsoon (approx 1 year)
  • Greening of the Sahara/Sahel and disruption of the West African monsoon (approx 10 years)
  • Dieback of the Amazon rainforest (approx 50 years)
  • Dieback of the Boreal Forest (approx 50 years)


These are generally the kinds of things which are meant when scientists talk about “dangerous climate change”.  If some of the worse ones were to occur, our entire food, water and weather systems would be thrown so far out of balance that we’d be likely to suffer the kinds of massive die-offs suggested by James Lovelock in recent days.

In a press release, Prof Lenton suggests;

Society must not be lulled into a false sense of security by smooth projections of global change,” said Prof Lenton. “Our findings suggest that a variety of tipping elements could reach their critical point within this century under human-induced climate change. The greatest threats are tipping of the Arctic sea-ice and the Greenland ice sheet, and at least five other elements could surprise us by exhibiting a nearby tipping point.

ScienceDaily has an excellent summary, sorting these events by probability and magnitude.

Full research excerpt here. 

Kim Stanley Robinson on valuing the future to avoid catastrophic collapse

March 31, 2009


“Am I saying that capitalism is going to have to change or else we will have an environmental catastrophe? Yes, I am.”

Author Kim Stanley Robinson argues here that capitalism is a “multi-generational Ponzi scheme” that is ruining the planet and has to change if human civilization is to survive.  

Taking a futures perspective, Robinson writes, “the main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future.”  On the longer scale, resources (including carbon) are underpriced, causing us to charge less for them than what they cost (an argument presented well by Buckminster Fuller, who calculated the true cost of oil based on the time of production at over a billion dollars per barrel).  “When this is done deliberately to kill off an economic competitor,” he writes, “it’s called predatory dumping; you could say that the victims of our predation are the generations to come, which are at a decided disadvantage in any competition with the present.”

…the promise of capitalism was always that of class mobility—the idea that a working-class family could bootstrap their children into the middle class. With the right policies, over time, the whole world could do the same. There’s a problem with this, though. For everyone on Earth to live at Western levels of consumption, we would need two or three Earths. Looking at it this way, capitalism has become a kind of multigenerational Ponzi scheme, in which future generations are left holding the empty bag.

You could say we are that moment now. 

Robinson argues that instead of trying to produce a “pyramid of wealth”, we should aim for a more broad-based economy of productivity that reduces inequality and accurately prices the cost of materials based on their unavailability to future generations.

Believe in science.”

Robinson’s first recommendation for change include actually believing, and valuing, what our scientists are telling us.  

“We need to trust our science. We do this every time we fly in a jet or rush to the doctor in hope of relief from illness…  Science is telling us that if we keep living the way we do, we will trigger an unstoppable and irreversible climate change that may de-ice the planet and acidify the oceans, causing mass extinction.

His main point is that the we are talking about the end of the world here.  There can be nothing more serious.

“It took tens of millions of years for Earth to recover from previous mass extinctions,” he argues, and despite our technological power and ever increasing intelligence, we are rapidly approaching the point where human society could be destroyed by climate change.  We need to start acting like it.

Seeing in a new way

Robinson’s point is well presented.  He concludes with a firmly futures-oriented question.  “Does the word postcapitalism look odd to you? It should, because you hardly ever see it. We have a blank spot in our vision of the future.”  This is the core message of scenario planning and futures work.  You can’t see the future because you don’t want to see it; your beliefs and morals prohibit you from seeing what you don’t want to see, leaving your surprised and disturbed when things don’t go the way you expect.

Choosing not to study a successor system to capitalism is an example of another kind of denial…  We have persistently ignored and devalued the future—as if our actions are not creating that future for our children, as if things never change. But everything evolves. With a catastrophe bearing down on us, we need to evolve at nearly revolutionary speed. So some study of what could improve and replace our society’s current structure and systems is in order. If we don’t take such steps, the consequences will be intolerable. On the other hand, successfully dealing with this situation could lead to a sustainable civilization that would be truly exciting in its human potential.

Well said KSR.  The future is in our hands, but only if we look beyond what we want to see, acknowledge that we are creating our own grave, and that in order to survive we must change the system; belief systems, social systems, economic systems, and organisational systems.  Otherwise we are well and truly doomed.

Full article here.

Thomas Homer Dixon reviews, “Global Catastrophes and Trends, the next 50 years”

March 28, 2009


One of HFP’s favourite thinkers, Thomas Homer-Dixon, publishes a review of two books on catastrophe in this week’s Nature.

In his review of two catastrophe-oriented books, Dixon argues that, “opinion-makers must demonstrate a better grasp of how societies rise and fall if they are to steer nations successfully through many of this century’s major crises.”

In Global Catastrophes and Trends, Smil, a Canadian scientist of prodigious productivity and extraordinary disciplinary breadth, basically says “get used to it”. Many of the vital natural and social systems around us are so complex that deep uncertainty characterizes their behaviour, and predicting this behaviour is near impossible. Thankfully, many of the threats to our wellbeing highlighted by the media are exaggerated — often wildly so. Although there are reasons for concern about where humankind is going, we need to remember that insecurity is part of the human condition. Catastrophe is too, but it is less likely than we imagine. Overall, given the admirable human capacity to adapt and change, the human prospect is far brighter than many assume.

Alex Steffan argues a similar point in his post, “Collapse Forward“.  He writes,

We certainly could blow it badly enough to trigger irrecoverable collapse (for instance, by triggering climate tipping points), but I’m dubious that most of the collapses we fear will in fact occur, or, even if they occur, that they will last as long or be quite as catastrophic as we think.

That doesn’t mean that big shake-ups aren’t coming. They are. The question is, how do communities and regions prepare themselves to sail as gracefully through that turbulence as possible?

Steffan suggests that investing in green infrastructure both lessens the stress on the system now, and decreases chances of systemic failure in the future.  This kind of “no regrets” planning is wise; both in the short term and as a long term development strategy.  

Are there any parallels between “no regrets” approaches to human vulnerability and the on-going aid vs. development debates?

NASA, space storms and social collapse

March 27, 2009


The New Scientist reports on a recent NASA study evaluating the risk of solar plasma flares.

Not your average humanitarian issue but interesting none the less:

It is midnight on 22 September 2012 and the skies above Manhattan are filled with a flickering curtain of colourful light. Few New Yorkers have seen the aurora this far south but their fascination is short-lived. Within a few seconds, electric bulbs dim and flicker, then become unusually bright for a fleeting moment. Then all the lights in the state go out. Within 90 seconds, the entire eastern half of the US is without power.

A year later and millions of Americans are dead and the nation’s infrastructure lies in tatters. The World Bank declares America a developing nation. Europe, Scandinavia, China and Japan are also struggling to recover from the same fateful event – a violent storm, 150 million kilometres away on the surface of the sun.

It sounds ridiculous. Surely the sun couldn’t create so profound a disaster on Earth. Yet an extraordinary report funded by NASA and issued by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in January this year claims it could do just that.


Full report, “Severe Space Weather Events–Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts” (for purchase).  

Full article, “Space storm alert: 90 seconds from catastrophe

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.


The new semantics of collapse

March 16, 2009

Bruce Sterling posts a great list of new words being used to describe the current economic and social crisis.  From Beyond the Beyond:

The list, gathered mostly off Twitter, includes:

  • Meltdown
  • Credit Crunch
  • Great Recession
  • Econolypse
  • Depression II
  • D2
  • Compression
  • Subprimicide
  • Economic Debacle
  • Great Restructuring
  • The Bailout
  • TEOTWAWKI “The End of the World As We Know It,” 
  • The Long Emergency
  • The New Dark Ages
  • The New Austerity
  • the Inflection
  • The Great Disruption
  • Housing Crisis
  • Market FAIL
  • The Great Re-Skilling
  • Global Economic Restructuring
  • Tsunami
  • the Enronicom
  • The Great Ponzi
  • the Great Fake
  • Bush’s Legacy
  • Great Reset
  • Global Reboot
  • Unreal Estate
  • Wall Street Blues
  • Uncapitalism
  • Capitalism Eats Itself,
  • the Deep Economic Wrinkle
  • Collapsonomics
  • Econocataclysm
  • Uneconomy
  • The Opportunity
  • Economy 3.0
  • The Crisis
  • The Credit-Shrink
  • the Lost Decade
  • the Economic Slump
  • the Black Swan
  • The Great Mistake
  • Communism 2.0
  • Moneyquake
  • Yuppie Famine
  • vapor margin-call
  • Ponziconomy
  • dinosaur culling
  • Crashmob
  • World Wide WTF
  • Revaluation
  • Reevaluation
  • Runoffonomy
  • Crisisonomy
  • Sythonomy
  • Econopocalypse
  • Force Restart
  • the Crater
  • Unconomy
  • Reconomy
  • Decredit
  • Crudit
  • Crunkit
  • Devaluation
  • De-globalization
  • the Asset Bubble
  • the Long Doom…