The myth of the optimal state: adaptive cycles and the birth of resilience thinking

Featured

By David Salt

Being sustainable, is tough. So far, we (as in humanity) are failing at the task miserably. My contention is that a big part of the problem is our inability to deal with the complexity of the systems around us, that we are a part of. Rather than acknowledging this complexity, we impose framings on these systems treating them as simple. (I discussed these ideas in complicated vs complex.)

Command and control

Simple systems can be managed and controlled, and held in an optimal state for as long as needed. Complex systems, on the other hand, self-organise around our efforts to control them. They can’t be held in an optimal state.

The notion of an ‘optimal sustainable yield’ was a widespread idea in natural resource management last century. The belief was that if you knew a little about what drives a natural resource (say reproductive capacity in fish stocks or forest trees), you could harvest that system removing an optimal amount of that resource forever as it would always replace itself. It’s a command-and-control approach that left countless collapsed fisheries and degraded landscapes in its wake.

‘Command and control’ involves controlling aspects of a system to derive an optimized return. The belief is that it’s possible to hold a system in a ‘sustainable optimal state’.

However, it’s not how the world actually works. Yes, we can regulate portions of the system, and in so doing increase the return from that portion over a short time frame, but we can’t do this in isolation of the rest of the system. If we hold some part of the system constant, the system adapts around our changes, and frequently loses resilience in the process (ie, loses the capacity to recover from a disturbance).

While we can hold parts of the system in a certain condition, the broader system is beyond our command. Indeed, no one is in control; this is a key aspect of complex adaptive systems.

Resilience thinking is an alternate approach to working with these systems, an approach that places their complexity front and centre. And the origins of this approach are entwined with an early realisation that a command-and-control approach to harvesting natural systems will always strike problems eventually. (The following example is based on a discussion that appears in the book Resilience Thinking.)

Of budworms and social-ecological systems

Spruce fir forests grow across large areas of North America, from Manitoba to Nova Scotia and into northern New England. They are the base of a highly valuable forestry industry.

Among the forests’ many inhabitants is the spruce budworm, a moth whose larvae eat the new green needles on coniferous trees. Every 40 to 120 years, populations of spruce budworm explode, killing off up to 80% of the spruce firs.

Following World War II, a campaign to control spruce budworm became one of the first huge efforts to regulate a natural resource using pesticide spraying (thanks in part to new technologies emerging from the war).

Initially, the pest control proved a very effective strategy, but like so many efforts in natural resource management that are based on optimizing production, it soon ran into problems.

In a young forest, leaf/needle density is low, and though budworms are eating leaves and growing in numbers, their predators (birds and other insects) are easily able to find them and keep them in check. As the forest matures and leaf density increases the budworms are harder to find and the predators’ search efficiency drops until it eventually passes a threshold where the budworms break free of predator control, and an outbreak occurs.

While the moderate spraying regime avoided outbreaks of budworms, it allowed the whole forest (as distinct from individual patches) to mature until all of it was in an outbreak mode. Outbreaks over a much greater area were only held in check by constant spraying (which was both expensive and spread the problem).

The early success of this approach increased the industry’s dependence on the spraying program, intensified logging and spawned the growth of more pulp mills.

Now there was a critical mass of tree foliage and budworms. The whole system was primed for a catastrophic explosion in pest numbers. The managers in this system were becoming locked into using ever increasing amounts of pesticide because the industry wouldn’t be able to cope with the shock of a massive pest outbreak. The industry had little resilience, and yet the continued use of chemicals was only making the problem worse. They had created a resource-management pathology.

Adaptive cycles

The industry acknowledged the looming crisis and engaged ecologists (including CS ‘Buzz’ Holling) to see how they might tackle the problem from a systems perspective. In 1973, Holling proposed a new analysis of the dynamics of the fir forests, one based on what he described as ‘adaptive cycles’.

Forest regions exist as a patchwork of various stages of development. The cycle for any one patch begins in the rapid growth phase, when the forest is young. The patch then proceeds through to maturity, and eventually, following some 40 to 120 years of stable and predictable growth (referred to as the ‘conservation phase’), the cycle tips into the release phase. The larvae outstrip the ability of the birds to control them, larvae numbers explode, and the majority of forest trees in that patch are killed. Their rapid demise opens up new opportunities for plants to grow, and during the reorganization phase the forest ecosystem begins to re-establish itself. The cycle then repeats.

With this understanding of the cycle and the key changing variables that drive the system, the forest managers were able to fundamentally modify the manner of their pest control. Rather than continually using low doses of pesticide over wide areas they switched to larger doses applied less frequently at strategic times over smaller areas. They re-established a patchy pattern of forest areas in various stages of growth and development rather than keeping wide areas of forest primed for a pest outbreak.

The forest industry also changed through the process, moving to regional leadership with a greater awareness of the ecological cycles that underpinned the forest’s productivity.

From budworms to resilience thinking

The case study of the spruce budworm and the fir forest is important on many levels as it was in part the genesis of what has become resilience thinking. During his investigations, Holling proposed that the key to sustainability was an ecosystem’s capacity to recover after a disturbance, not the ability to hold it in a notional optimal state.

He also recognized that the ecosystem and the social system had to be viewed together rather than analyzed independently, and that both went through cycles of adaptation to their changing environments. Adaptive cycles don’t just happen in nature, they happen in communities, businesses and nations, it’s feature of complex adaptive systems.

His proposal catalyzed the thinking of ecologists and researchers (with an interest in systems) all over the world because similar patterns were being identified everywhere social-ecological systems were being studied.

One key insight that grew out of an understanding of adaptive cycles is that bringing about change/reform in a social-ecological system is always difficult. However, windows of opportunity do open when a system goes into a release phase, although the window doesn’t open for long. You need to be prepared to seize the opportunity while it’s there.

A basic lesson I draw from the notion of adaptive cycles is that systems get locked into themselves over time and become rigid. There’s no such thing as a sustainable optimal state because even if the system is managed into a condition deemed desirable, it then progressively loses its capacity to learn, innovate or keep its flexibility (often in the name of efficiency). Efficiency is important but is never the complete answer. Efficiency is not the key to sustainability.

Over the decades since Holling first described adaptive cycles, the models and the thinking associated with managing for resilience has gone through much refinement but the two core ideas remain at its heart: the fact that social-ecological systems constantly move through adaptive cycles over many linked scales, and that they can exist in different stable states. I’ll discuss this second building block in my next blog.

Banner image: Spruce fir forests provide valuable timber. However, efforts to optimise these systems last century with the widespread application of pesticide almost destroyed the industry. Uncovering what was going wrong became the origins of resilience thinking. (Image by Reijo Telaranta from Pixabay.)

Thinking resilience – navigating a complex world

Featured

By David Salt

Our world seems to be coming unstuck at the moment. Climate fuelled weather extremes – floods, droughts, heatwaves and fires – are crippling large parts of humanity. Many people are grappling for answers; What do we do? Why haven’t we already done something about this? It’s not like we haven’t been warned (repeatedly and with comprehensive detail by our climate scientists and others).

I believe many of your problems lie in our inability to deal with the complexity of the world around us (my last two blogs discussed this very thing – we can’t fix this because it’s complex and complicated vs complex). One way of better appreciating that complexity and navigating a way through lies in the area of resilience thinking.

The word ‘resilience’

The word ‘resilience’ is now common in many vision and mission statements. But ask the people who use these statements what they think it means and you get a range of different answers, most of which relate to how something or someone copes with a shock or a disturbance.

Concepts of resilience are used in all sorts of disciplines, but it has four main origins – psycho-social, ecological, disaster relief (and military), and engineering.

Psychologists have long recognised marked differences in the resilience of individuals confronted with traumatic and disastrous circumstances. Considerable research has gone into trying to understand how individuals and societies can gain and lose resilience.

Ecologists have tended to describe resilience in two ways; one focused on the speed of return following a disturbance, the other focused on whether or not the ‘system’ can recover. People engaging with resilience from the perspective of disaster relief or in a military arena incorporate both aspects (ie, speed and ability to recover). Indeed, there is a lot of commonality in the understanding of resilience in the three areas of psychology, ecology and disaster relief.

In engineering the take on resilience is somewhat different. Indeed, engineers more commonly use the term ‘robustness’ with a connotation of designed resilience. It differs from the other three uses in that it assumes that the kinds of disturbances and shocks are known and the system being built is designed to be robust in the face of these shocks.

Resilience thinking

The ‘resilience’ that is being invoked in vision and mission statements relating to Australia’s environment is largely based on the idea of ecological resilience, and it’s all about the ability to recover.

The science underpinning our understanding of ecological resilience is often referred to as resilience thinking. The definition of resilience here is: the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize so as to retain essentially the same function, structure and feedbacks – to have the same identity. Put more simply, resilience is the ability to cope with shocks and keep functioning in much the same kind of way. 

A key word in this definition is ‘identity’. It emerged independently in ecological and psycho-social studies, and it is both important and useful because it imparts the idea that a person, a society, an ecosystem or a social-ecological system can all exhibit quite a lot of variation, be subjected to disturbance and cope, without changing their ‘identity’ – without becoming something else.

The essence of resilience thinking is that the systems we are dealing with are complex adaptive systems. These systems have the capacity to self-organise around change but there are limits to a system’s self-organising capacity. Push a system too much and it changes its identity; it is said to have crossed a threshold.

The systems around us that we depend on (and are embedded in) are linked systems with social, economic and bio-physical domains, operating over multiple scales. To understand what enables these complex systems to retain their identity, what keeps them resilient, we need to appreciate the linkages between these domains and scales. We also need to understand how the system is behaving within each domain and scale, because over time these components go through their own cycles (known as adaptive cycles) in which the capacity for change (and the ability to hang on to their identity) shifts.

Many ideas, many insights

Resilience thinking involves all these ideas. It is the capacity to envisage your system as a self-organising system with thresholds, linked domains and cycles.

Each of these ideas take a bit of explaining, something I’ll attempt in upcoming blogs (for a good guide, see Resilience Practice*). However, when you begin engaging with ideas relating to a system’s resilience, you begin to appreciate the world in a different way.

Some of those insights have been for me that no-one is in control, and you can’t understand a system by understanding the components that make it up – complex systems have emergent properties (for example, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts).

We also need to appreciate that the narrower concept of ‘efficiency’ – ie, holding a part of our system in a state that delivers optimal returns (eg, food or fibre) without considering interactions with other domains or scales – leads to a loss of resilience, making it less likely that these systems will continue to deliver into the future. Efficiency is important but, by itself, it is not the solution to the challenge of sustainability.

We live in a complex world facing enormous challenges. Too much of our efforts so far have been directed to command-and-control approaches, techno solutions and improving efficiency. If the problems we were dealing with were simple and tractable, such approaches would work well. Unfortunately, our current approaches to sustainability are not working at all, and the problem is growing significantly.

Could it be we’re trying to solve the wrong problem? We’re managing a complex world as if it were a simple system.

*Walker B & D Salt (2012). Resilience Practice: Building Capacity to Absorb Disturbance and Maintain Function. Island Press. Washington.

Banner image: Forests begin their recovery after Australia’s Black Summer of 2019/2020. (Image by David Salt)

Solving sustainability – It’s complicated AND complex. Do you know the difference?

Featured

What is it about the challenge of climate change that makes it so difficult to solve?

Clearly, it’s a complicated problem involving many interacting components. These interacting parts include the Earth system (and its billions of components), people (you and me), states and countries; organisations and institutions; unknowns; tradeoffs; winners and losers. We’ve spent decades of effort addressing this issue – including billions of dollars on research – and yet the problem of mounting levels of carbon emissions and accelerating environmental decline only seems to get worse. (Have you seen what’s happening in the northern hemisphere at the moment? And it’s only spring!)

Clearly, climate change is a big and complicated problem but it seems to me, having watched us deal with this challenge (and fail) over many years, what we’re not acknowledging is that it’s also a complex problem, and we’re not dealing with this complexity very well.

‘Complicated’ and ‘complex’ are words often used interchangeably but they are fundamentally different ideas. Do you know the difference? I’ll confess that for most of my life I didn’t.

So, what is complexity?

Complex systems scientists have been attempting to pin down what complexity is for decades. To me, most of their definitions are highly technical and only understandable by other complex systems scientists.

Here’s one commonly used definition set out by the famous evolutionary biologist Simon Levin in 1998 that encapsulates many of the ideas floating around complexity. It’s relatively short and sets out three criteria for defining a complex adaptive system. Complex adaptive systems have:

-components that are independent and interacting;

-there is some selection process at work on those components (and on the results of local interactions); and

-variation and novelty are constantly being added to the system (through components changing over time or new ones coming in).

Sounds straightforward but what does it mean and why is it important? Here’s how I attempted explain it in the book Resilience Thinking*.

Cogworld vs Bugworld

Consider these two situations: Cogworld and Bugworld.

Everything in Cogworld is made of interconnected cogs; big cogs are driven by smaller cogs that are in turn driven by tiny cogs. The size and behavior of the cogs doesn’t change over time, and if you were to change the speed of the cogs of any size there is a proportionate change in speed of other connected cogs.

Because this system consists of many connected parts some would describe it as being complicated. Indeed it is, but because the components never change and the manner in which the system responds to the external environment is linear and predictable, it is not complex. Really, it is just a more complicated version of a simple system, like a bicycle with multiple gears.

Bugworld is quite different. It’s populated by lots of bugs. The bugs interact with each other and the overall performance of Bugworld depends on these interactions. But some sub-groups of bugs are only loosely connected to other sub-groups of bugs. Bugs can make and break connections with other bugs, and unlike the cogs in Cogworld, the bugs reproduce and each generation of bugs come with subtle variations in size or differences in behavior. Because there is lots of variation, different bugs or subgroups of bugs respond in different ways as conditions change. As the world changes some of the subgroups of bugs ‘perform’ better than other subgroups, and the whole system is modified over time. This system is self-organizing.

Unlike Cogworld, Bugworld is not a simple system but a complex adaptive system in which it’s impossible to predict the emergent behavior of the system by understanding separately its component subgroups. It meets the three criteria outlined by Levin: it has components that are independent and interacting; there is some selection process at work on those components; and variation and novelty are constantly being added to the system.

Complicated vs Complex

In Cogworld there is a direct effect of a change in one cog, but it doesn’t lead to secondary feedbacks. The cogs that make up Cogworld interact but they are not independent, and the system can’t adapt to a changing world. Cogworld might function very ‘efficiently’ over one or even a range of ‘settings’ but it can only respond to change in one way – that is working all together. If the external conditions change so that Cogworld no longer works very well – the relative speeds of the big and little cogs don’t suit its new environment – there’s nothing Cogworld can do.

In Bugworld the system adapts as the world changes. There are secondary feedbacks – secondary effects of an initial direct change. The bugs of Bugworld are independent of each other though they do interact (strongly – though not all bugs interact with all other bugs).

In our Bugworld, if we attempted to manage a few of the subgroups – eg, hold them in some constant state to ‘optimise’ their performance – we need to be mindful that this will cause the surrounding subgroups to adapt around this intervention, possibly changing the performance of the whole system.

Ecosystems, economies, organisms and even our brains are all complex adaptive systems. We often manage parts of them as if they were simple systems (as if they were component cogs from Cogworld) when in fact the greater system will change in response to our management, often producing a raft of secondary feedback effects that sometimes bring with them unwelcome surprises.

The real world is a complex adaptive system. It is more like Bugworld than Cogworld and yet it seems most of our management, policy and leadership is based on a Cogworld metaphor.

The consequences of complexity

Complex adaptative systems are self-organizing systems with emergent properties. No-one is in control and there is no optimal sustainable state that it can be held in. These are just two of the consequences that fall out when you begin to appreciate what complexity is all about, and they are pretty important consequences if you reflect on it.

Our political leaders will tell you they are in control, and that they have a plan, a simple solution that solves the problem of climate change without anyone having to change the way they do things. This is the message that Australians have been hearing for the past decade from our (recently defeated) conservative government. But we grew skeptical of these claims as we saw our coral reefs bleach and our forest biomes burn.

Why is climate change so difficult to solve? Yes, it’s complicated with many interacting components. However, more importantly, it’s complex and complexity is something humans don’t deal with well (let alone understand).

As one piece of evidence on this, consider how we think about thinking. What’s the image that immediately comes to your mind? For most people it’s a set of mechanistic cogs encased in a head (like in our banner image this week). If you thought my ‘Cogworld’ was fanciful, how many times have you seen this representation of human thinking as mechanistic clockwork without questioning it. Because what you’re seeing is a representation of a complex system (you thinking) as a non-complex simple system (a set of cogs). The ‘cogmind’ is a fundamentally disabling metaphor.

And if you scale this up to the systems around us, how many times have you accepted that someone is in control, and that the answer is in just making the world a bit more efficient, a bit more optimal? How is that going for us at the moment?

Different priorities

If, however, we are living in a complex world, then maybe we should stop looking for the illusory optimal solution and start dealing the complexity in which we are all embedded. How is that done?

One set of ideas I have found helpful lies in resilience thinking. Rather than prioritising efficiency, command-and-control, reductionism and optimisation, resilience thinking encourages reflection, humility and co-operation, aspects on which I’ll expand in my next blog on complexity.

*Two decades ago I was asked by a group called the Resilience Alliance to write a book on resilience science. That book, co-authored with Brian Walker, one of the world’s leading authorities on resilience science, became the text Resilience Thinking. As I learnt about resilience science I discovered that it was all about dealing with complexity, an insight that transformed the way I understood the world.

Banner image: If you thought my ‘Cogworld’ was fanciful, how many times have you seen this representation of human thinking as mechanistic clockwork without questioning it. (Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay)

Why can’t we fix this? Because it’s complex

Featured

By David Salt

If you could go back in a time machine some 20 years, what would you tell a younger version of yourself about climate change and how the world has responded to it in the last two decades?

Back from the future

“Well, young David, you know how many people are talking about climate change; and how scientists are forecasting horror weather, ecosystem collapse and mass climate disruption if we do nothing about our carbon emissions? Well, guess what? I’m from your future, from 2022, and you know what we did? We did nothing!

“And the scientists were right. We’re now experiencing horror weather, ecosystem collapse and mass climate disruption.

“Of course, it’s unfair of me to say we did completely nothing. In the past two decades there’s been heaps of talk, research and many agreements signed. And many of us now have photovoltaics on our rooftops.

“The scientific consensus on climate change has only firmed since the year 2000, and there have been efforts in various places on ways of reducing carbon emissions.

“However, by and large, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane have steadily, remorselessly, built up. (In 2000 we were around 370 parts per million CO2, in 2022 we’re over 412 ppm, over a 14% increase.)

“Here are few ‘milestones’ that you might want to reflect on from the past two decades (that’s the next 20 years from where you’re standing).

“As you know, there had been multiple international scientific consensus reports on the biophysical reality of climate change, most notably the IPCC reports of 1990, 1995 and 2001. These set out the very clear case for the scientific basis of the changes happening to the Earth system and what this meant for us, but they were quite ‘sciency’, bloated with technical jargon and largely discounted by the politicians.

“Then, in 2006, the UK released the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. It was significant because it was the largest and most authoritative report of its kind setting out the dire consequences for civil society. It found that climate change is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen, presenting a unique challenge for the world. The Review’s main conclusion was that the benefits of strong, early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting.

“I’m telling you this, young David, because at this time (still six years in your future) it looked like all the political ducks were lining up for strong action on climate change.

“In 2007, Australia elected in a new government led by Kevin Rudd who declared that ‘climate change was the great moral challenge of our generation’ and proposed a comprehensive policy called the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) that would put a cap on Australia’s carbon emissions. It would have placed Australia at the vanguard of global climate action.

“I have to say, young David, that up until this time I had begun to despair that any of our political leaders were going to do the right thing. And then Rudd stood up and said this was too important not to do something, we couldn’t abrogate our responsibility to future generations. I felt hope.

“But then the opposition conservative party decided to turn climate change into a divisive political battle, and the Greens said the CPRS wasn’t strong enough and voted against it… and the CPRS failed to pass through Parliament.

“And then Rudd said ‘Ah well, it’s too difficult to get through so we’ll park the CPRS and revisit it sometime down the line.’

“This moment is several years in your future, young David, but, mark my words, when you reach it your illusions that climate change is a tractable issue capable of being solved by good science and well-meaning people will be shattered. And it will be a significant moment in which you begin transforming into me, grumpy old David.

“Because you believed Rudd when he said this was the most important issue of our time. And you stopped believing him when he threw it to the side. (I note his party stopped believing in him after this, too.)

“And then I watched in horror as climate denialism started taking centre stage, populism trumped informed debate and the costs of acting were overhyped in order to prevent any meaningful action being taken. Stern’s mantra of ‘early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting’ were completely forgotten in the political shit storms that followed.

“And then the Great Barrier Reef started bleaching (2016), our forest biomes went up in flames (2019) and historic floods devastated the nation (2022). The most common adjective being rolled out in all these disaster stories is ‘unprecedented’ because the past is no longer a guide to what we can expect.

“In 2022 (the year in your future from which I return) the whole world is enduring ongoing climate catastrophes. India and Pakistan have just suffered their longest and most intense heat wave resulting in crop failures. Europe is reeling under the ‘unprecedented’ heat and the fires are expected soon. In the United States an ‘unprecedented’ drought is crippling the water supplies of their western cities. Many of our small island Pacific nations are facing an existential crisis as rising seawaters lap at their doors. And everyone everywhere is going a little bit crazy.

“And, young David, this is not ‘a new normal’. This is only the start of the warming that scientists were describing two decades (and more) ago, with some accuracy I might add. Yet still our political leaders allow today’s ‘sunk investments’ in fossil fuels to delay our actions.

“Oh, and speaking of investments, young David, one last thing before I’m back to the future; buy as much stock as you can in Apple and Facebook. But don’t tell anyone I told you, otherwise I’ll be in big trouble with the mechanic who runs the space-time continuum.”

It’s complex

So, what’s the point of this little thought exercise (above and beyond a reflection on my earlier poor investment choices)?

In recent weeks, Australia has been gripped by an energy crisis – not enough affordable energy to power the system at the beginning of a cold winter. Experts from across the energy spectrum have commented on the causes and solutions to this crisis, always noting they are complex and not quickly solved. In response, many people have accused the experts of obfuscating and hiding behind the idea of ‘complex’. Just tell us how to fix it, they cry.

But it’s true, I thought. It is complex. You can’t solve this energy crisis with simple and easy fixes. You increase energy supply here, and you throw out the system over there. Simple fixes to complex problems inevitably create bigger problems down the line or on the other side of the continent.

And the energy problem is only a small part of the bigger climate change issue, which is complex times complex. Greenhouse gas emissions are embedded in our energy, our food, our transport, in everything.

And yet, again, our political leaders tell us there is a simple solution, just vote for us. Anyone who acknowledges it is a complex problem with complex solution will be torn to shreds by the opposing party when they go for election. The costs to the present status quo (based on fossil fuel dependence) will outweigh calculations on future sustainability.

Stern’s claim that the “benefits of strong, early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting” are valid, but completely lost in the complex world in which we live.

In some ways I’m feeling like it’s 2007 again. We have just elected a new government promising action on climate change and hopes are high. But I fear we’re still not engaging with the complexity of this challenge.

If I could turn back time, this is what I would be trying to tell our political leaders. Don’t treat climate change as a simple problem. It’s not. It’s complex. And complexity means you need to acknowledge connectivity between sectors, path dependency, non-linearity and threshold behaviour in key variables. All themes which I will discuss in up-coming blogs.

I titled this essay ‘Why can’t we fix this? Because it’s complex.’ Another way of framing that is encapsulated in the quote: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong,” (HL Mencken).

I believe climate change is a challenge that can be resolved, but only if we acknowledge that it really is a problem of complexity.

Banner image: Quick Young David, there’s not a moment to lose. The very future is at risk! (Image by Danny Springgay from Pixabay)

Disaster follows failures in integrity. Don’t think the Earth System is too big to fail.

Featured

By David Salt

In an effort to distract myself from Australia’s putrid federal election campaign, I’ve taken to watching disaster films, specifically Chernobyl and Deepwater Horizon. Unfortunately, because they are both based on real-life events, they only remind me about the failings of our current political leaders. Both films carry powerful messages on the importance of good governance and the consequences of taking it for granted.

Melt down

The award-winning series Chernobyl was created by HBO and went to air in 2019. It tells the events surrounding the explosion in Reactor 4 at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in 1986. It’s a story of nuclear nightmare, self-sacrifice, heroism and cascading tragedy. Underpinning the disaster is a tale of greed, corruption and power in which an ossified Soviet empire censored science that had years earlier revealed that the nuclear reactor design was flawed, and a hierarchy that only wanted good news, a tight focus on production targets and punished anyone who pointed out when things were going wrong.

The power plant was under-resourced, poorly equipped, and badly managed. When the Reactor 4 blew up, the local emergency response was totally unprepared and ignorant about what to do in a nuclear accident. The consequences were horrific for the attending fireman and locals watching on.

The inadequate local response was then matched by the broader Soviet response of denial and cover up, but the scale of the disaster meant it couldn’t be ignored as radioactive debris sprayed over Europe.

It was the worst and most expensive nuclear accident the world has ever seen, and many scholars believe it directly contributed the collapse of the Soviet empire a few years later.

The HBO series brilliantly captures the unfolding horror of the disaster following it from the moment of the accident through to the investigation much later in which scientists do their best to reveal the rottenness of the system that allowed the catastrophe to occur. The message is not well received and the whistle blowers pay an enormous price for their courage.

Blow up

If anyone thinks that major disasters like this are the preserve of sclerotic dictatorships like the Soviet Union, you’re kidding yourself. A couple of months before the melt down at Chernobyl in 1986, the US experienced its own catastrophic failure when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew itself to smithereens 73 seconds after lift off. Seven crew died as a result and the whole Space Shuttle program was suspended for years. Some suggest the program never really recovered.

And what caused this disaster?

The Space Shuttle was touted as the most complex machine ever put together by humans, but what destroyed the Challenger was the failure of simple rubber O-ring seal on the shuttle’s solid rocket booster. Except it wasn’t really a failure of an O-ring so much as a failure of governance. Engineers had known for many years the O-rings didn’t work very well in extreme cold conditions, such as were experienced at the time of launch, and even recommended against launching at that time.

But the mission, which had already gone through long and costly delays, was under enormous time pressures and somehow the concerns of the engineers, who sat at the bottom of the management hierarchy, were not conveyed to the decision makers at the top of the tree. The decision to go ahead with the launch was made, and the rest is history. (HBO really should make a docu-drama on this.)

Blow out

Now maybe you’re thinking big disasters like these only occur when state-controlled hierarchies are in charge. If that’s the case, I recommend you see the 2016 film Deepwater Horizon which recounts the origins of the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

The spill occurred when the Deepwater Horizon, an ocean oil drilling rig operated by BP, caught fire when high-pressure methane gas from the well expanded into the marine riser and rose into the drilling rig. There it ignited and exploded, engulfing the platform, killing 11 workers and setting off the largest environmental disaster in American history.

The film contends the disaster was the direct result of BP officials rushing through safety tests and ignoring the ageing infrastructure on board the drill rig. As with Chernobyl and Challenger, engineers were ignored, and production timetables were prioritized over safety and due diligence.

Though this was an accident in the commercial sector, it can also be said that government oversight and environmental protection and monitoring were found wanting.

Integrity fail

When disaster strikes we are too often absorbed by the heat and light of the event itself. When we look past that, the real problem is almost always a failure in integrity around the way in which the system is being governed.

Good governance, transparency and accountability would have prevented Chernobyl, Challenger and Deepwater Horizon from ever becoming disasters. And if we want to prevent future disasters of this type, this is where we should be looking.

Which is why I got depressed when watching these movies because it just got me thinking about the failing integrity of leaders such as Johnson, Trump, Putin and our own Scott Morrison. These leaders have been actively eroding the integrity of the institutions that allow us to trust our governments and the processes they run. Without this integrity we won’t hear the warnings of the ‘engineers’ that the systems we depend upon have vulnerabilities and may be heading for collapse.

Hollow credits

One excellent example of this in Australia is the recent revelations by Professor Andrew Macintosh that our system of carbon credits lacks integrity – that Australian Carbon Credit Units are being awarded to projects that are not actually capturing the carbon they claim. Macintosh, one of the architects of the system, claims the problem is poor governance, that the same people awarding the credits are doing the monitoring and the selling of the carbon credits. A market with integrity would allow for transparency, accountability and independent validation of what’s being bought and sold but our carbon market does not have these features.

The problem is that these carbon credits are being purchased by fossil fuel producers to offset their own carbon emissions. If, as Macintosh contends, 70-80% of the carbon credits do not represent captured carbon, then they’re not actually offsetting anything, but fossil fuel companies still have a green light to keep pumping out carbon emissions.

Now, maybe you can’t see Chernobyl or Deepwater Horizon in this story. However, our government has simply denied Macintosh’s claims, even though he has considerable empirical evidence supporting his case (and our government isn’t releasing the information that Macintosh has asked to be made public). Our government says the carbon market is fine, they won’t fix it, and our carbon credits are in high demand. Our performance on climate change is beyond reproach, they say (even though we trail the developed world in reducing carbon emissions). It’s like the Chernobyl operators ignoring warnings on the basis that the project is too good (too big) to fail; and they’ll only be punished if they say something.

In our government’s admonishment of ‘engineer’ Macintosh’s attempts to blow the whistle on this broken carbon market I hear the echoes of Soviet administrators and BP corporates claiming ‘push on, there’s nothing to see here’.

But the system is not good, carbon emissions are rising, people and species are dying from climate-enhanced weather extremes. And in response, our political leaders tell us not to worry, the systems they have in place will protect us. But those systems have no integrity!

Then, one more straw is added to the camel’s back…

Banner image: A scene from the HBO series Chernobyl in which military officers spray the accident site to kill all life in order to prevent it spreading radioactive contamination. The ‘fallout’ from this nuclear accident is still being experienced today.

Three experts and a politician in a sandpit – who has the real insight on climate policy in a connected society

Featured

By David Salt

The scientist, the economist and the lawyer

There were three people at the bar – a scientist, a lawyer and an economist – arguing about how to solve the intractable problem of sustainability, and specifically climate change.

The scientist said we just need to know a little more, remove some of the uncertainty around our knowledge on the earth system (and what humans are doing to it), and then society would fall behind the overwhelming scientific consensus that something needs to happen.

The lawyer said we just need better laws proscribing what’s acceptable and what’s not. Better rules are the solution.

The economist said we just need to provide the right incentives for people to begin doing the right thing and discourage them from doing the wrong thing. Bad behaviour, said the economist, should simply cost more making it ‘common sense’ to be sustainable.

Enter the politician

“You mean, like putting a price on carbon?” said a greying, white gentleman in an expensive suit who had butted into the conversation. “That worked a treat for Australia’s climate change policy.”

“Actually,” said the economist, “it did work well until it was canned by the Abbott Government in 2013.”

“But that’s the point,” purred the politician. “We proposed to ‘axe the tax’ and the people voted us in and we did… axe the tax that is. Putting a price on carbon was electoral poison and may we never hear of it again.”

“And you, Ms Scientist,” he said turning on the person representing science…

“It’s ‘doctor’ actually…” stammered the scientist; but was totally ignored by the politician who was building up a good head of righteous steam.

“…how effective has all your additional science reportage been in winning hearts and minds? For God’s sake, the IPCC’s Sixth Report read like a horror movie in terms of what it’s predicting. Yet we were able to deflect its potency by describing it as horror porn and pointing out we were actually beating our emission targets. It quickly faded from the news cycle.

“And as for you, Ms Lawyer, it’s all well and good to let scared children block coal developments by dragging our Minister for the Environment through the court saying she’s abandoned her duty of care to the future but just you watch happens on appeal.

“Mark my words,” he boomed, “No higher court will uphold a judgement that threatens to block every major economic development that brings with it a residue of environmental harm. To do so would kill the economy, the voters won’t hear of it.

“No, don’t you worry your pretty little heads with all this sustainability clap trap. The adults are in charge, and we’ll make sure there’ll be technology aplenty to ensure our thriving economy continues apace!

“And don’t forget whose taxes keep you happy and out of danger playing away in your little academic sandpits,” he finished with a flourish.

Shifting piles of sand

“You might be surprised what you find in sandpits, Mr Member of Parliament,” hissed back the scientist. “Back in the 80s, physicists experimented with models of sandpiles and discovered they were complex systems. The more grains you add to a pile of sand, the more unstable it becomes. It moves into what’s called a critical state.

“As the pile grows, more and more parts of the sand slope become unstable requiring just one more grain of sand to trigger a slide. At a certain point there are enough small triggers across the pile that setting off one small slide creates an avalanche that can rearrange the whole pile.

“You might think you’re safe from one of the small slides but the interconnected critical nature of the pile means change will occur well away from the initiating disturbance.”

“Thanks for that,” quipped the politician. “I’ll remember that next time a blunder into a sandpit.”

Pile high society

“You don’t get it, do you?” snapped the economist. “Our colleague is actually describing society. You and your conservative brethren are trying to hold things in the same state because that best serves your vested interests, your fossil fuel backers. But our sandpile society is slowly building up a resistance to your efforts. And when the instability corrects itself, your lack of action means the correction will be big.

“Companies and governments, though not the Australian Government, are trying to figure out how to sustain themselves in this increasingly uncertain climate-afflicted world. More and more countries are signing up to economic measures like a price on carbon. Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanisms are being developed by the G7. Even coal companies, irony of irony, are feeling the heat as insurance companies refuse to insure them; companies are having to figure out how they can do this themselves.

“All these things are little patches of instability on the sandpile and it’s making the whole sandpile unstable. This is not just a physics model, economists recognise it all too well and have seen it at play in every economic upheaval from the Great Depression to the GFC.”

“And you piss on the law, Mr Politician,” chimed in the lawyer. “But do you not see what’s happening everywhere at the moment?

“It’s not just a few children disillusioned at your deceit and lack of action. It’s courts at all levels calling you out. The whole Sydney City Council just endorsed the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and, of course, most of the world signed up to the Paris Agreement. Citizens everywhere are now standing up and demanding what our governments are actually doing to meet these agreement.

“A Dutch court, in a landmark ruling, has just ordered Royal Dutch Shell to drastically deepen planned greenhouse gas emission cuts. This could trigger legal action against energy companies around the world.

“And a Paris court has found the French Government legally responsible for its failure to meet targets intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

“So, Mr Politician,” said the scientist, taking back the reins of the argument. “What does it mean for your efforts to stop change when all sectors of society – law, economics and science just to mention three – begin building in checks and balances to force change? Your malfeasance enables you to disable some of our efforts – ‘axe the tax’, as you say – but over time the little efforts across society build up, the triggers accumulate, the demographics change and the evidence emerges.

“I’d say you’re sitting on a hypercritical pile of sand being peppered by little grains of sand. And each new grain, each new disturbance, could trigger the slide that triggers the avalanche. And when that happens, your smug self-assurance over the success of the games you’ve been playing will be unable to staunch the flow.”

Nowhere to sit

“And if we’ve scared you out of the sandpit, Mr Politician, think of it as a game of musical chairs,” observed the economist. “Unfortunately, I can’t hear the music anymore.

“And, thanks to you and your efforts, it looks like Australia doesn’t have a chair to sit on.”

Image: In the sandpit of life, a single grain of sand can change everything if the circumstances are ripe. For an excellent article on sandpiles as models of economic growth and disruption, see https://www.mauldineconomics.com/frontlinethoughts/the-growing-economic-sandpile
(Image by Nuwanga Mavinda from Pixabay)

The wicked problem of complexity on the Great Barrier Reef

The inconvenient truth of an ‘in danger’ listing isn’t going to save this precious Reef

By David Salt

The Great Barrier Reef looks like being moved onto the ‘in danger’ list of World Heritage estates and the Australian Government is not happy about the change one little bit. Why? Because they don’t think the listing process is fair and they still reckon the Great Barrier Reef is the best managed reef in the world. They also suspect China is out to get us.

The saga of the listing of the Great Barrier Reef has now been covered every which way by various media commentators. The science is crystal clear; the Reef is in serious and growing trouble. It’s hard to see how the Australian Government can escape the claim of gross negligence and mismanagement yet in this post-truth, hyper-partisan age it seems anything goes. The Government’s gripes with UNESCO of the in-danger list are not based on biophysical reality but on perceptions of procedural unfairness (and China has absolutely nothing to do with the UNESCO World Heritage committee’s decision).

Rather than focus at the minutiae of this ‘in danger’ listing, I’d like to reflect on the bigger lessons provided by how we’re dealing with the decline of the Great Barrier Reef, and what this means for all our precious ecosystems.

1. It’s not about how well the marine park itself is managed

Part of the Government’s defence this week has been that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is the best managed coral reef ecosystem in the world. Maybe that’s true in terms of resources committed to running the marine park. But it ignores that the biggest threat facing the reef comes from outside of this ‘well managed’ park.

The scientific consensus is clear, rising temperatures mean the Great Barrier Reef will not exist in the future. It doesn’t matter what band aids and grants are applied to the park itself. Unless we as a species reduce our carbon emissions (that lie behind climate warming) all coral reefs will be lost as they exist today.

Claiming that you are caring for a patch of nature while ignoring how that patch is connected and impacted by what happens beyond the patch is simply dishonest.

2. It’s also about water quality

The Government’s line on climate change is that this is a global problem. Australia by itself can’t solve global warming so therefore it’s not an issue that should be tied to the condition of the Reef itself.

Ignoring the fact that Australia is trailing the world on climate action (in many ways slowing an effective global response), what is it that Australia does take responsibility for? The answer is water quality on the reef.

Water quality refers to the levels of chemicals, nutrients and sediments ending up in Reef waters along the coast of Queensland. These ‘contaminants’ largely originate from land-based activities such as sugar cane, bananas and pastoralism. Declining water quality has been an issue for the Reef for much of the last three decades.

Poor water quality is a problem because it alters the balance of the Reef ecosystem – promotes outbreaks of coral eating Crown of Thorn Starfish (which eat coral), encourages algae to colonise spaces previously occupied by corals and generally lowers the Reef’s resilience.

Given the government’s impotence in the face of climate change, the strategy it has elected to follow is to focus on aspects it claims it can influence. In other words, clean up water quality by changing land management. We can’t force other countries to behave differently (in respect to climate change) but we do, in theory, have power over how we manage our own landscapes.

The belief is that if water quality can be improved, this will contribute to overall reef health which, in turn, means the reef should recover faster whatever disturbance hits (including climate-related episodes of bleaching and super-charged cyclones).

The Government has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on improving water quality. While water quality has slightly improved on some measures it’s unlikely any of the ambitious targets set will be met and overall marine condition remains poor.

So, even if we ignore climate change (exposing the moral void of our environmental stewardship), the strategy nominated by the government to protect the reef – improve water quality – is also failing to achieve much. And this is not an isolated statement, there have been many reports in recent years showing government action is not working in improving water quality.

Why is it so hard to fix water quality? Because it’s very expensive (though a lot less expensive than taking on climate change). The government’s own costing on what is required is $8.2 billion over 10 years, and so far it hasn’t even stumped up a tenth of this.

But it’s more than just money. Fixing water quality requires massive change to land management over a big area. A former NRM Chief said “We’re trying to get transformational change to an area twice the size of Germany with 10,000 farms on it. This is no small undertaking.”

Big and very complex.

3. Scale is the GBR’s Achilles heel

The size of the Great Barrier Reef makes it hard to comprehend; it’s over 2000 km long. But the time frames we’re dealing with also problematic when it comes to the politics.

One of the arguments the Government used when faced with an impending ‘in danger’ listing last week was that UNESCO hadn’t done its due diligence. UNESCO’s conclusions were based on a ‘desk top review’. They need to come out to the reef and see it for themselves, said the Australian Government, see the great work being done to fix it being undertaken by Indigenous people, school kids, tour operators and other worthy stakeholders. They need to take into consideration the ‘gee whiz’ science being done on finding heat-tolerant corals and efforts to shade the reef, thereby creating possible pathways of restoration (actions most reef scientists simply cannot work at scale).

Of course, whenever someone cries ‘the Reef is dying’, you’ll also find a ratbag politician prepared to point (and sometimes rip out) a piece of coral and say: ‘looks healthy to me, what’s the problem?’

The problem is a lack of science; the problem the politicians capacity to cherry pick the evidence that suits their claim (by focussing on part of the Reef that’s looks good while ignoring the overall trend of decline). The problem is a failure to acknowledge a healthy reef now is irrelevant against the prospect of intermittent catastrophic bleaching events in the future.

It’s great that bits of the reef are recovering from the last bleaching event in 2020 (and the events in 2016 and 2017) but it takes many years for full recovery and with forecasts for bleachings every second year within the next decade, the GBR’s days are numbered.

So, while the Australian Government says ‘look at this bit of healthy reef’ or ‘the reef is recovering this year’, it entirely ignores the scales of time and space over which this massive ecosystem functions.

4. An inconvenient truth

Science often refers to climate change as an ‘inconvenient truth’. But when dealing with complexity it’s easy to worm your way around the issue. Politicians can easily slide around biophysical reality because the ecosystems we are dealing with are big, complicated and complex. The scales of time and space these systems are operating at are not aligned with the 3-5 year political cycles in which inflation rates and the cost of housing dominate debates.

It’s too easy for the (Australian) politicians to claim “we’re the best reef managers in the world” while all the evidence says otherwise.

Big ecosystems (think the GBR, the MDB and our east coast forests) are complex and difficult to understand. They are connected to other systems and influenced by what’s happening at other scales. And climate change is only part of the problem.

Our politicians will encourage you to only look at the bits that are in accord with their ideology (eg, the park is well managed, don’t look beyond the park), and to only think about the problem in the scale of their political cycle (eg, the good work being done by well-meaning volunteers gives them hope that their efforts make a difference, which makes them feel good; don’t think about the next bleaching event beyond the political horizon).

So the inconvenient truth for me is that our complex ecosystems are in trouble but our systems of governance don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.

The challenge then is not to better define the biophysical truth and expect politicians to change but to reform our governance such that it responds appropriately to ecosystem decline and collapse. For this to happen we need demonstrate to voters why that biophysical truth is important to the values they help dear and why they must hold our politicians to account.

The evidence is that our current management of the Reef, the Murray Darling Basin and our forests is unsustainable. If we wait for this ‘truth’ to become real then our ‘victory’ will be empty as the loss of these ecosystems will be irreversible. That’s an inconvenient truth we all need to acknowledge.

Image: Coming up for air on the Great Barrier Reef (Photo by David Salt)