System Perspective

A perspective that can accommodate the integrated and dynamic nature of civilization.

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The blades of the FAN do not represent a series of discrete problems amenable to discrete solutions. Even though there is a strong tendency in science, policy and public discourse to see things in silos, that’s not how the world works. Long-term economic and complexity growth, and system stability have made us blind to our inter-dependencies and complacent of our vulnerabilities.

To understand our predicament, we need a perspective that can accommodate the integrated and dynamic nature of civilization, and how it will express the growing number of stresses, social and ecological and internal to which it is subject. One way to characterize this system’s view is as follows. 

I. Complexity

The networks that maintain our welfare (e.g. networks of trust, supply-chains, critical infrastructures, financial systems, production systems) and civilisation more generally is growing in scale and integration, becoming more complex, interdependent, opaque, delocalised, high speed, and synchronized. This has increased potential vulnerability to globally connected strain and shocks, and interdependent systems failure.

 II. Growing Constraints

There is an array of increasingly pressing large-scale and critical potential drivers of stress and shocks that can test such vulnerabilities. They are persistent, distributed and growing constraints that arise from the operation of civilisation but are also intrinsic and critical to that operation and its stability. These include:

  • Declining marginal returns on the natural inputs required to maintain and grow civilisation, expressed most pressingly through oil and food production.
  • The rising impact of waste and ecosystem pressure arising from that growth, for example climate change, soil exhaustion, toxification, and aquifer depletion.
  • Growing internal stress, in particular declining marginal returns to complexity; approaching limits to credit expansion; and growing socio-political tensions as trust and legitimacy is eroded.

III. Accumulating stressors and interactions through global networks

Civilisation and its constituent subsystems irreversibly lock-in structure and relationships as they evolve and self-organise: from settlement patterns, resource and input dependencies, trade and employment dependencies, critical infrastructures, globalised economies of scale, to societal expectations, patterns of trust and so on.

Such systems respond non-linearly to stress and when weakened, are more likely to amplify contagion through global networks. For example, the societal impact of refugee flows into Europe was exacerbated because trust within and between countries and institutions had already been strained by the 2008 iteration of the global financial crisis. In turn, the surge in refugee flows were in part driven by the build-up of localised demographic pressures and water/ arable land constraints interacting with the global effects of climate change and food price volatility, the latter not helped by quantitative easing, and therefore an unintended consequence of forestalling a global financial system catastrophe. Critically, all these stressors (demographic pressure, soil/water, oil /food production, climate change, credit over-extension, etc.) are only increasing, while our capacity to respond is declining.

If stressed beyond the limits of a system’s resilience, tipping points can be passed and positive feedback drives it into a new irreversible state, which may be characterized as a collapse.

IV. Lock-in and Declining Adaptive Capacity

As it is the systems and networks we depend upon that are undermining our dependencies, our condition is in a systemic lock-in. That is, we are embedded into crisis-inducing dynamics that we are, and will be largely unable to change in any significant way. Attempts at change or crises’ response will be at most temporary or quite possibly cause further de-stabilization.

Societal awareness of the need for urgent responses may increase with events. However, it is precisely the increasing stress, shocks and volatility that will undermine our ability to adapt or make significant change. At multiple scales, our experience is likely to be characterised by desperate attempts to maintain habituated expectations and systems as they lose resilience and become more unstable.

This is the context in which large-scale and catastrophic drops in socio-economic complexity become plausible. The intricacy, operational speed, and distributed nature of our civilization means that such system collapses can be deep, rapid, and irreversible.

Severe consequences for human security are inevitable. There is a naïve hope that is little more than denial and wish-fulfilment. But there is another, discerning hope: one that demands we stand up to face realities head-on with confidence, poise and wisdom. In responding to the challenge, we tilt the balance of risk towards better outcomes for human and ecological security, and in doing so affirm the best of our species in times that threaten to expose the worst. It is the epitome of responsible leadership, and the greatest challenge of our age.

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