As the swine flu raced around the world and our minds last week, my thoughts went to economic risk and human resilience. And to chickens.
Pandemics and the threat of them, provide great insights into the world of the Great Disruption and some powerful lessons on what to expect and how to get ready. They can help us develop a roadmap for surviving and flourishing in uncertain times.
For those not familiar with my Great Disruption theory, the essence of our current situation is as follows. The world economy is operating up against its limits – limits of physical capacity and complexity. Like a tightly wound clock spring it has enormous power and potential but also the ability to suddenly and chaotically release. Into this unstable context, ecosystem decline is going to create a series of major shocks leading to a prolonged crisis but also an exciting period of global transformation.
The swine flu gives us great insights into this future. It is like a small grenade thrown in to test the unstable system. So what can we learn?
Firstly, shocks create two types of impacts – the direct and physical along with the human perception and behavioural. Pandemics have the clear potential to make millions ill, many fatally. Critically however, fear can magnify this impact many fold. So we need to manage both physical impacts and the perception impacts. In the case of the Great Disruption this means we have to prepare people mentally so that shock and panic doesn’t prevent us from effectively dealing with the physical impacts.
Secondly, it shows the power of preparing well. The swine flu outbreak appears to be responding well to the thorough preparations and plans being implemented by governments and companies around the world. The fear of Bird Flu trained us well.
So preparing well for other future shocks is key. This is well understood for hurricanes, fires and other extreme weather events where we have the knowledge to prepare well (even though our performance in events like Hurricane Katrina and the wild fires in Australia has been pretty dismal). What is more poorly understood is the preparation needed for impacts like sea level rise, food shortages, refugees and geo-political instability. These also pose greater global systemic risks. We need to start planning for these because they are certainly coming and preparation, physically and mentally, will make a big difference to the outcome.
Thirdly, we can see the power and the opportunity of global cooperation and planning. Like climate change, pandemics can only be addressed with global action and therefore open, engaged and forward thinking conversations about future risks and ways of responding is going to be critical. It’s a good time to boost diplomacy and engagement, at the government and citizen level.
Fourthly, we can see how rapidly a crisis, even a well predicted and planned for one, can change things overnight. We may escape this time, but it’s now easy to imagine a combination of rational and panic driven responses having devastating consequences. A global lock down, with borders closed and travel stopped, the panic buying of food, fear of interaction with other people leading to the breakdown of supply in food and energy could all happen within days. It is now easy to imagine a devastating, rapid global economic and social crisis erupting with little warning.
So what do we do with all this? As readers will be aware, I am a strong advocate for taking an optimistic view of the coming crisis, while arguing we need to acknowledge its severity so we are not paralysed by it.
How that translates here is that we need to build resilience into our lives – into our communities, our companies, our governments and our global relationships. The good news is there are great collateral benefits in doing so.
At the simplest level, we need to connect inside our communities, know our neighbours and increase our real world connectedness. We constantly hear how we’re globally connected yet how many of us know the people in our street, so that if a crisis hits we could help each other out?
We need to think about services many of us take for granted, like water, electricity, food and fuel, suddenly ceasing one day. How would we cope without these for a few days, a few weeks, a few months? We will mostly cope – if we plan well and don’t panic when it hits. Again this has many upsides, sharing car rides with neighbours, keeping chickens in the back yard, being used to cycling and walking to school and work – all these approaches enhance our lives and our happiness. My kids love playing with the chickens we keep in our back yard. Meanwhile my wife and I know that if we suddenly went into lock down, we could live on fresh eggs and cans of baked beans for several weeks, cooked on an open fire in the back yard. The kids would probably even like it, well for the first few days at least!
So let’s get to work on this now. Let’s have the conversations about what is certainly coming, talk to our neighbours about how we’re going to cope and start doing the things that enhance our lives in the meantime. Chickens may not save the world but they can certainly enhance the journey!