Pandemics, resilience, economic risk and chickens


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!

6 thoughts on “Pandemics, resilience, economic risk and chickens

  1. Hi Paul, I recently read “No Contest the Case Against Competition” by Alfie Kohn, One of the most important books I have read. It is an in depth look at competition from education to economics and its harmful effects on society. The theories discussed in the book are the core reasons we are in this current environmental and financial crisis. Thank you Paul for your optimistic and practical observations, they are always thought provoking.

  2. Paul,
    You have done a very good job at describing our collective ultimate reality. I’ve learned very clearly that change is inevitable. The question is do we choose change or does it choose us. For me, I think it’s time to buy some chickens. My wife likes eggs. :-)

  3. salamander

    The attitude of the people is paramount in a crisis. But what about the attitude of the media, who have great influence on the attitude of the people? The swine flu was blown out of proportion, but how much was due to politics and how much to media wanting to sell newspapers? Feel-good stories do not sell papers, so it serves the interests of editors everywhere to have a headline screaming at us about disaster, mayhem, crisis. How can we ensure some responsibility by editors for the stories they release?

  4. Bob Miller

    Hi….the basic problem is that we have too many people in the world & that we can not support these numbers. From 1 billion in 1900 to our present population of 6.5 billion is not sustainable in any way. We must somehow get back to around 2 billion. How do we do that?

  5. Brooks


    In “World Hunger: 12 Myths” by Frances Moore Lappé, she shows that whenever women are educated in a country/state, the birth rate falls dramatically and in general, health, etc., improves. Kerala India is a prime example; low birth rate, high life expectancy, high literacy. When I say high, I mean comparable to US. Very much at odds with most of India.

  6. I laud you optimism and with young children it is your best option and I am even very reluctant to take the oxygen from your fire but unless you have some way of changing the genetic make up of human then you can not expect a lion to behave like a mouse.

    13% of humans possess the required gene type necessary to support community expressed behaviour under stress that leaves 87% to elect self interest.

    So in your …. if we suddenly went into lock down, we could live on fresh eggs and cans of baked beans for several weeks….’ I am sorry but unless you had a big gun your scrambled eggs dinner would be some else’s fried chicken lunch

    I encourage you to not take any notice of us realists and continue to live your dream

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