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02.10.2013

Capitalist Futures: Resilience by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy

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by Yasmin Crowther

Resilience by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy (Headline, 2013) is impossible to summarise succinctly – which is perhaps apt as its focus is systems and the complex combinations of diversity, simplicity, localism, optimism and clustering that inclines towards systemic resilience -  be it of the mind, physical structures, organisations, cities or communities. The topic doesn’t lend itself to a sound bite.

Throughout their book, Zolli and Healy appraise extremely diverse case-studies to illustrate the attributes that contribute to systemic resilience and those that deplete it. The following highlights a handful of the book’s insights regarding:

I was most struck by the authors’ insight to do with the ways in which a social system can creep towards collapse – with no single person or organisation clearly in the wrong, but a series of unchallenged actions gradually leading towards a culture that inherently undermines itself. 

The authors write: ‘Each [person] with an imperfect understanding of the whole, is acting rationally, responding to strong social incentives to serve a friend, a constituent, a shareholder in ways that have a significant individual benefit and a low systemic risk. But over time their decisions slowly change the cultural norms of the system. The lack of consequences stemming from unsafe choices makes higher risk choices and behaviours seem acceptable. What was the once-in-a-while exception becomes routine. Those who argue on behalf of older ways of doing things are perceived as fools, paranoids or party poopers hopelessly out of touch with the new reality or worse, enemies of growth who must be silenced. The system as a whole edges silently closer to possible catastrophe, displaying what systems scientists refer to as self-organised criticality – moving closer to the critical threshold.’

Surely this couldn’t happen to us in the twenty-first century, not given everything we’ve learned since the financial crisis and all the ways in which we’ve been empowered and interconnected by social media? Surely we would anticipate any future critical threshold and do our utmost to avoid it… And yet, last week in Sweden, most of the world seemed to take in its stride the IPCC’s warning that we are set to breach the previously agreed 2°C threshold for ‘safe’ climate change.  If we ever breached a 6°C threshold, the risk experts warn the impacts could be equivalent to some 500,000 fatal plane crashes per year.  Somewhere between 2°C and 6°C, I wonder where we will draw the new line and how long until we edge over that too. I also wonder at what point our optimism in the ability of innovation to provide low carbon solutions and let us off the hook of tackling today’s high-carbon habits becomes a type of collective denial – ‘the self-organised criticality’ that Resilience warns against, as we blithely walk over the edge.