In the world of Anthropocene, with rising not only human pressures on the planet, but also an increasingly interconnected world in terms of social, financial, and economic exchange across all nations in the world, we must recognize that we are entering a realm where interconnectedness translates into what we call teleconnections.
Teleconnections are when changes in one part of the world cascades itself to impacts in other parts of the world. One example is when rainforest is cut down, changing rainfall patterns in, for example, Latin America, which can translate and propel itself and change rainfall conditions and temperatures all the way to inner China.
And these kind of teleconnections must be understood because they can themselves trigger surprise and what we call inconvenient feedbacks that can implicate the possibilities for sustainable development. And this is a difference compared to the way we’ve perceived development in the past, where we’ve tried to map out resources, tried to predict and assume that things change linearly and incrementally. That’s on the basis upon which we built our entire economy, assuming that we can predict change in the environment. And now we are in a situation where surprise is a core element of change
But on top of that we must also add an element of complexity. Not only is climate, ecosystems, health, and development interacting with each other in the hyper-connected world, not only do we have teleconnections, but what can occur when a series of global drivers, for example climate change and financial change across an interconnected global financial systems, when these global drivers cause an impact which is totally unexpected often in a very, very different part of the world than the very source of the problems, we call that inconvenient feedbacks.
These are big, major surprising events that occur based on global drivers translating themselves to unexpected outcomes. These examples of social hyper-connectivity are increasingly well understood. They must be layered together with the recognition that we have exactly the same rising hyper-connectivity, even interdependence, given the teleconnections we see when it comes to changes in the environmental system.
And if you put this together, the larger scale changes in the social and environmental systems, you come to the recognition that we live in a much more complicated hyper-connected world where changes in the climate system affects ecosystems, which together influences both human health, economics, and development at large.
And that this is the new reality that we’re facing. Now the evidence around this of course is well illustrated by global internet connections, by the global transport systems that connect all continents, which means that for example a pandemic in one corner of the world can propel itself very rapidly, a volcanic eruption in Iceland can suddenly shut down large parts of the transport systems, affecting even the world economy. The fact that we’re interconnected in our energy fluxes, which means that a shift not only financially in one corner of the world but even in terms of resource use, for example prices on natural gas, or shutting down, or instabilities in the Middle East, propel themselves across the economy very rapidly.
The fact that we can now see changes and democratic movements in one part of the world propelling themselves across Facebook suddenly becoming global movements in the moment of seconds. This is in truth a connected world that has become a hyperconnected world in just the past couple of decades. But the key insight is that we’ve moved from a hyperconnected world to a totally interdependent world, where all the components of the Earth system, the biomes, the regulative resilience of planet Earth and its ability to stay in the Holocene-like condition is essential for every economy, business community in the world.
Now this has been increasingly explored scientifically, recognized the interactions between the climate system, ecosystems, human health, and the economy, and also articulated as a core component of our ability to navigate the Anthropocene. But now it’s not enough to have a stable financial system, we must also have a stable climate system in order to secure health in different parts of our economy.
But it’s also a world where we must now understand risk and the probability of what we call super wicked problems, that different changes interact and amplify change. And a few examples of this have been, and are, increasingly recognized also by organizations like the World Economic Forum and business leaders across the world.
This graph shows a recent analysis among thousands of CEOs, how they perceive risks in the hyperconnected and interdependent world of the 21st century. And what you see here is the fear of predictably financial crisis, regulatory failures, liquidity problems, instabilities in institutions, transparency corruption, which affects the failures or success of global governance in economy disparity. But if you look carefully at this graph you’ll see at the lower left-hand corner infectious disease, chronic diseases, water security, food security, climate change, air pollution, storms, flooding, biodiversity loss, a whole battery of large processes that are increasingly recognized that they do interact in real time with the social, financial, economic parameters in the world which together creates this complex cocktail of potential super wicked problems in the world.
An illustration of this, which is still very much debated but I think it’s worth sharing, is the tremendous disaster we’re now seeing playing out right in front of us in Syria, a civil war which is causing massive disaster for hundreds of thousands of people and a complete destabilization, not to say collapse, of an entire nation propelling itself to instabilities in an entire region. Interestingly data shows that just two years before the civil war in Syria was the longest and most profound drought period ever recorded in Syria, probably the worst drought ever recorded since agriculture was invented eight thousand years back, and that this series of years of drought triggered millions of Syrian farmers to move into cities.
Now it’s very difficult of course to make the connection between this transformative change of forced migration into cities among poor desperate farmers and the current uprising and the instability we see in Syria, but there’s no doubt that we start seeing example, example after example, of how these kinds of social changes also interact with abrupt ecological changes occurring in the Anthropocene.
That Hurricane Sandy, which veered in and is actually the largest ever invoice for any city, forty billion US dollars for New York City due to this unprecedented, totally expected veering of an hurricane moving right into shore, is an example of something that can no longer be disconnected from the Anthropocene. On the right-hand graph you see in yellow the normal trajectory of hurricanes, which do occur as part of the natural variability and the natural part of the weather systems. And in red you see the sudden veering in on land, the westward trajectory of Sunday, which can only today be explained by factoring in the warming the Arctic and the changes of the weather patterns up in the polar regions.
So again an example of how a financial abrupt change interacts with an ecological change at large scale. Now is this a trend that we’re seeing empirical evidence for? The answer is yes.
This is a very messy graph but it’s one of the most telling empirical observations over the past fifty years. This is data from NASA showing from 1955, each map here is a year – all the way to 2011 in the lower right-hand corner, the observed frequency of ultra-extreme events, so-called three sigma event. Three sigma event is statistically extreme weather events that occur less than one in a thousand years, so we’re talking absolute extreme droughts, floods, heat waves. In 1955 the occurrence across the world of these kind of extreme events covered only 1% of the world’s surface, totally stochastic, very chaotic, we can never predict where it occurs, but it occurs over essentially no part of the world, which is why we call them three sigma events, they should in fact not occur.
In 2011 it covers an astonishing 14.8% of the Earth’s surface. The unexpected has suddenly become normality.
We cannot predict where it occurs but it’s a recognition that we’re moving rapidly into a situation where interactions, feedbacks, and unprecedented inconvenient feedbacks are part of the normal, so to say, geopolitical situation that we now must face.
Now in terms of implications for development we must also recognize that it has directly profound operational impacts. Just to give you one example this is a photograph of a standing, stable rainforest, which pumps up vast amounts of water, which creates water vapor, develops into clouds, and generates rainfall. Now the latest science shows the following.
What you see here on this world map in red regions are the regions which to 80% or more gets its rainfall from evaporation from forests in neighboring countries. So just look at China here, the vast northern China plains depend to a very large extent on sustainable management of forests in the westward neighboring countries, all the way from Russia, Ukraine, to the Baltic Sea – Baltic states. This in my mind is a geopolitical bomb recognizing that a country like China depends on sustainable management of ecosystems in its neighboring countries. Same goes as you see in red here for the Congo region, the wet savannah regions in West Africa, but also the nations that reside downstream or in the southern parts of the Amazon rainforest.
Again, a proof of the interconnectedness and teleconnections that we do depend on in terms of development. Same for the Arctic. These are the kind of data we generally see from NASA showing the temperature distribution across the world. What you see here is the anomaly in January 2010 which is an extraordinary period because one, you see this blue region here which is an unprecedented cold lock-in with 2, 3, 4° Celsius colder than normal, an extraordinarily icy and snowy winter period in Russia and in the Scandinavian region. But also see in dark red, which is the extraordinarily heat in the Arctic region. Increasingly evidence shows that there’s a teleconnection between the extraordinary unprecedented warmth in the Arctic region and how that pushes down Arctic air to lower latitudes, explaining why we see these cold pockets of winter climate in lower latitudes.
To put it simple, Arctic climate moving southwards, and teleconnections in the Anthropocene. The food system is increasingly understood as being perhaps the core and most significant part of the Anthropocene. Here you see a whole set of front pages in media recognizing that the food system is the number one victim of change in the Anthropocene because food requires fresh water. Fresh water is the first victim of climate environmental change. And reverse, the food system is the number one driver of changes at the planetary scale, a teleconnection and an inconvenient feedback we must recognize.
Now the final story here is a complex one showing how small scale fishermen in communities in West Africa, due to European fish policy which means that large, large industrial fisheries empty the coasts of the African fish resources, have increasingly forced small scale fishing men and women to abandon fishing, their livelihoods, and basically, and literally put their boats on the shore and for a livelihood they’re forced to start moving inwards on land to chase bush meat.
Similarly with farmers that are losing their livelihoods because of land degradation and droughts, and you see a movement of communities desperately moving into, let’s say, natural ecosystems, forest systems, to hunt for bush meat which in turn leads to rising risk of zoonotic pandemics when we get infectious diseases moving across species from bush meat to human beings, showing a very complex interaction across scale. Climate change pushes changes at local level, political decision in one part of the world changing resource access in another part of the world, which in turn forces communities to suddenly change the life support systems, which in turns puts them in a vulnerability that triggers and unexpected change, in this case zoonotic pandemics that you normally would not see.
This is the kind of feedbacks and interactions that we must start understanding when we try to navigate a situation where human development is so tightly connected with abrupt environmental changes from local to global scale.