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Buying Time: A conference, two books and the urgency for a follow-up

Buying Time: A conference, two books and the urgency for a follow-up

7 October 2019

In December 2016 the conference “Disrupted Balance – Society at Risk” happened in Singapore. It dealt with the resilience of societies in the face of major disruptions. There were twelve speakers, each uniquely qualified to address this issue. They talked about disruptions in the food supply, water management, governance, the financial system and its effects on society, and about disruptions due to natural disasters or from emerging infectious diseases, terror and cybercrime, collapsing infrastructure and lack of leadership.

These speakers, who did not know each other beforehand, came up with a remarkable coherent message:

  • Unless we do something, humanity is heading for a hard crash.
  • We have the knowledge to avoid that, but we need to act.
  • The question is: What to do, how to do it and where to start?

The book Disrupted Balance – Society at Riskis the collection of the edited talks given at the conference. The book “The Stockholm Paradigm, climate change and emerging disease”answers to the above questions for the case of the growing threat posed by emerging infectious diseases.
Disruptions happen all the time. Floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, climate fluctuations, famine, war and pandemics are part of human history. Throughout history the impact of such disruptions were felt mostly locally or regionally, while temporal or cascading effects went largely unnoticed. Disruptions will continue to happen, but there will be more and the impact will be worse than in the past. Why?

Because of the growth of the world population, the increasing and intensifying global connectivity, the unexpected consequences of collective human consumption and behavior, and especially as a result of the synergy between these developments. That synergy has lead to a human induced climate change that has become a driving force common to the global threat of disruptions in the production of our food supplies, of pandemics, the availability of water and the sustainability of a large number of megacities.

As a result of this synergy, the number and intensity of disruptions will increase and their global impact will grow, even more so because of the accelerating development and impact of technology, the growing dependence of our trading and support systems on the integrity of cyberspace, the failing global financial system and the vulnerability of our social fabric to terrorism and populism.

These threats of disruptions and their effects on society are exacerbated by the fact that governance is at risk. Our local, national and international institutions do not know how to deal with the consequences and implications of the accelerating interconnectedness and complexity of our globe. Nor do they know how to make full use of the knowledge about disruptions that has been accumulated through science. Finally, there is a shortage of leaders who dare to expect the unexpected and prepare the world for the unthinkable.

If nothing is done, these collective developments undermine the resilience of our society and will inevitably lead humanity to a crash. On this, the speakers of the conference showed an amazing unanimity.

That is the pessimistic side of the story. If we do nothing, humankind is heading for a crash. That will be a hard crash from which it will be very hard to recover, because the abundance of resources that has enabled the development of the technological infrastructure that supports our society is now gone. It is gone because our society has consumed it. And we are running out of time! We need to create time.

The more optimistic side of the story is, that that crash does not have to be. In fact, we have the knowledge, both in science and engineering, to avoid mayor disruptions or mitigate their consequences. And we can buy us time to ensure humanity will make a soft landing, in which our technological infrastructure remains intact while we remedy the problems we have caused for ourselves over the last century. We need to create and execute actions plans that give us an answer to the questions: what to do, how to do it and where to start.
The books
The book “The Stockholm Paradigm, climate change and emerging diseases” gives an answer to these questions for the case of the growing threat posed by emerging infactiuous diseases.

New diseases show up almost daily. This is happening much faster than it should according to the old and dominant paradigm that says that ecologically specialized pathogens, that are strongly co-adapted to their hosts, should not be able to “change allegiances” easily. However, we now know that, given the opportunity, pathogens have the capacity to switch hosts. Climate change, changing demographics and the increasing mobility and interconnectedness of the rapidly growing number of people on the globe, offer such opportunities. As a result, pathogens are moving to new hosts.

This is creating a growing threat of emerging infectious diseases that may result in pandemics that could kill a substantial part of humanity. Such pandemics could wreck the technological infrastructure that keeps our societies vital and thriving. To lower the risk of such a hard crash we must find ways to ensure a soft landing. To do that, we must get the human population down, while keeping our technological infrastructure intact. Time is critical, because the likelihood of a pandemic is growing every day. In other words we need to buy time in which we must work on systemic approaches to counter the threat of pandemics or to mitigate its consequences. And we can, and we know what to do!

One of the key problems we must resolve in that time is that we know only 10% of the potential pathogens on the planet and we do not know which of the 90% unknown pathogens might be the ones that may cause a pandemic. This must change quickly and drastically. For that we need taxonomists and we need to assess the threat to determine on which of the pathogens we should focus.

Once we know which pathogens are the most threatening we can start to do something about mitigating their impact. We can monitor the threatening pathogens that we identified. For that we need population geneticists, and a variety of specialist like the ones that can do mathematical modelling. And we need community involvement.

We must also integrate human activities on multiple scales, from citizen scientists to world-renowned specialists to government policy makers. All this can be done. It will not be cheap or easy, and life will never be the same, but it is feasible, and it may be essential for the survival of technological humanity.

The book Disrupted Balance – Society at Risk describes similar examples regarding disruptions caused by natural disasters, by discontinuities in the food supply or water management, or by a failure of governance, the break down of the financial system, the threat of terrorism and cybercrime, or the lack of leadership. That book presents a view on the future for mankind that can be summarized in one sentence: Humanity faces big threats, but there are ways to deal with those threats and to avoid the disasters they foreshadow.

All the speakers of the conference in December 2016 alluded to ways to avoid such disasters or to mitigate their consequences and argued that we have the knowledge and technology to do so. They said, is short:

  1. We have the knowledge to improve the urban infrastructure to mitigate the results of natural disasters.
  2. We know how to make the food system more resilient. To do this requires concerted strategic actions, a “whole of government” approach, and better international governance.
  3. We know what needs to be done to manage the water on this globe to ensure that there is enough for everyone and for all its functions and we have the knowledge and technology to do it. And we know that applying that knowledge it is not so much an intellectual issue, as it is an emotional issue.
  4. We must raise awareness to the cyber threats. There is a role for government and education in this, and there is great opportunity for grass-root actions.
For such actions to take effect in an organic way, governments and policy must relinquish control in a decentralized fashion.

We know what needs to be done. So why are we not already doing it on a global scale? Here are some reasons given by the speakers:

  1. Individual human nature is such that it seems not to be willing or able to see the (black) elephant in the room.
  2. Long term inevitability does not draw as much attention by governments as short term problems, needs and electoral cycles do. So, while our knowledge of pathogens that may potentially cause a pandemic can rapidly be increased by a concerted effort on a global scale, getting governments and international institutions to act on the notion that this issue is key to sustaining our technological infrastructure, is short in coming.
  3. The nature and dynamics of the changes that governments and international institutions have to deal with, like changing demographics, rapid and accelerating technological transformations and growing interconnectivity, are beyond their capability and capacity to manage.
  4. There is an enormous and unknown territory between what we know that can be done technologically and the incentives and motivations for politicians and decision makers to do it.
  5. Governments and policy makers have great difficulty in relinquishing control in a decentralized fashion, and letting reactions take place in an organic, bottom up way.
  6. Education is not focused on making young people aware of the pending threats to their existence and the ways they can play a role in diminishing those threats. Nor is there a way to educate leaders so that they dare to expect the unexpected and prepare the world for the unthinkable.
All this and much more was discussed during the conference. To get a sense of that remarkable conference and the message it conveyed, read the books.
Follow up
That message was so coherent and strong that it cried for a follow up. That is now taking shape through a workshop to be held in January 2020. The purpose of that wortklshop is to produce some forceful action plans.

These plans will be proposed in the spirit of supporting and extending the reports of the recent IPCC, UN@75, Global Commission on Adaptation, Global Health and Lancet reports. These reports focus heavily on issues of food, water and energy but fall short of addressing the problems associated with urbanization and emerging disease. Also, these reports do not adequately show the interdependence of all these threat multipliers. Finally, the reports do not propose action plans of sufficient focus.

The workshop will foucs on two interconnected action plans – one dealing with emerging disease and one dealing with urbanization. The written version of each plan would begin with a discussion of the reason why the topic is of importance and why it is connected with global climate change. They would then progress to an assessment of the threat multipliers (for disease, this would be water-borne, food-borne, population density-dependent, and vector-borne diseases) and finally an action plan for mitigating the impacts of those threats. In the case of emerging diseases, this involves implementing proactive measures (what we call anticipate to mitigate) designed to reduce the cost of emerging diseases sufficiently that humanity can “buy time” for other measures to work.

The action plans will be widely published and distributed and will form the starting point for the conference “Buying Time, to be organized somewhere next year.