The refugee crisis. The Eurozone crisis. Brazil’s pension crisis. California’s water crisis. The US mortgage crisis. China’s financial crisis.
And soon world leaders will meet in Paris to discuss how to deal with the global climate crisis. But climate is only one of many global crises.
What’s going on here?
“We talk about these problems separately, as though they are happening on parallel planets,” remarks Garry Peterson, Professor in Environmental Sciences and researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
That’s a problem, he says.
“They’re all happening at the same time. They’re all connected. If you try to address a problem from just one perspective, such as an economical or historical perspective by itself, it won’t work.”
In the past, crises were often local and isolated, leaving the rest of us largely unaffected. But today crises affect people and ecosystems around the world simultaneously.
Peterson is part of a large team of researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, established in 2007, focusing on precisely these issues. The centre is a joint initiative between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
“Our research brings together ecologists, economists, political scientists, psychologists, sociologists and others to see how these things are all interconnected,” Peterson says.
And these researchers are trying to figure out what is behind these global crises and how to avoid them.
“We try to make sense of these big connections, connecting things like changes in oil prices, the euro crisis, the war in Syria, and the invasion of Iraq,” Peterson explains. “Those things all together contribute to the European refugee crisis.”
Peterson and his colleagues have just published a paper on the "architecture of global crisis", explaining the causes, processes, and outcomes of interconnected crises throughout the world.
“We have identified a bunch of key pathways and mechanisms – like climate change. Slow changes that result in massive effects over time,” he says.
At the same time, globalization and technology have led to a more interconnected world with “huge amounts of people and money” moving around, he says. These connections can be invisible in daily life, but they mean that local acts have consequences that echo around the world.
“So the food choices people make in Sweden are contributing to destroying rainforests in Borneo,” Peterson states.
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“The regulation of financial markets in the EU affects the livelihoods of farmers in Ethiopia, and soot from stoves in Asia are helping melt Greenland’s glaciers. Normally all of these things are thought of as separate, but in our modern world they are all connected.”
Against a background of more human activity, rapid globalisation, and the homogenization of cultures and technologies across the world, there are three types of processes that can combine to form crises, the researchers say.
These dynamics are what the researchers call the ‘long fuse big bang’, where stress factors accumulate until they reach a tipping point; ‘simultaneous stresses’, such as the combined effect of a financial crisis and a drought; and ‘ramifying cascades’, or sudden severe disturbances spread through tight networks.
“For example, Greece would find it a lot easier to deal with refugees if it didn’t also have the euro crisis to deal with,” Peterson explains. “And that’s not the direct fault of Greece – that too has been caused by other global factors.”
So could the framework be used to predict – and prevent – the next global crisis?
“Actually, that’s exactly the wrong way of approaching things,” Peterson says. “That’s like focusing on matches to prevent forest fires. It’s missing the point.”
A fire requires a spark, which certainly may come from a match. But it also requires dry fuel.
“The most important question is if it can spread once it’s started, and what you can do to stop or enable the spread, rather than the spark.”
The belief that there wouldn’t be a crisis if it could be forecasted is fundamentally flawed, he says – because no matter what factors are already in place, you never know what will trigger an explosion.
“No one could have predicted that the street vendor who set himself on fire in Tunisia was going to trigger the Arab Spring,” he says. “But we could see that there were various stresses in the region, making it more and more vulnerable.”
The trick is not to know exactly where the tipping point is, but rather how to handle it, Peterson says.
“It’s hard to know where these tipping points are and it’s even harder to go back once you’ve gone over it. So we can’t just look for the edge – because usually you only find the edge by walking off it,” he says.
“But you stay away from edges as well as being prepared for how to respond and how to minimize the impact.”
One of the benefits of interdisciplinary research at the centre, though, is that teams may be able to locate the “sweet spot” for intervention.
“There are positive aspects of tipping points dynamics. You can often find places to intervene with multiple benefits, solving three problems at once, because they are all interconnected,” Peterson says.
For instance, eating less meat is healthier (especially in light of recent reports showing processed meats could be carcinogenic), and cutting back on meat also reduces climate change, helping to preserve nature.
“Instead of trying to push back the tide you do something that works with the tide. So then you get much more positive benefits for the world, nature, and society.”
This article was produced by The Local in partnership with Stockholm University.