The Ebola crisis and the climate crisis share dozens of similar systemic dynamics, mostly associated with delayed responses that allow intrinsic “reinforcing feedback loops” to magnify the crises’ challenges to almost insurmountable proportions. A major lesson for change agents is to focus on transforming the dynamics that lead to those delays so that society’s problems are addressed before they reach catastrophic levels. Not surprisingly, transforming those systemic dynamics would take us a long way towards the kind of just, sustainable, and enjoyable world we’d like to have anyway.
A week ago I read TIME magazine’s annual “Person of the Year” feature which, instead of celebrating an individual, spotlighted a number of “The Ebola Fighters: The ones who answered the call”. With a few exceptions* I consider it excellent journalism: In addition to being compelling and revealing (and thankfully not sensationalist), it provides more lengthy coverage of an issue than I ever recall seeing in a major newsweekly: In the print edition it adds up to 42 pages, 16 of which are full-page photos of some of the heroes featured.
The main TIME essay fascinated me mostly because it reveals many of the systemic dynamics that have made Ebola the nightmare that it became as well as dynamics that began to restrain the epidemic – all through telling the stories of some of the remarkable people who have risked their lives to stem the tide and save or comfort their fellow human beings.
Reflecting on what I learned in the TIME article, I started noticing some instructive parallels between the Ebola crisis (which has similarities to other epidemics, from AIDS to influenza) and the climate crisis (which of course manifests differently in different locations and times). I’m sure there is much more to learn from this, but I want to share my initial thoughts, for any insights they may offer into the ways systems function. Perhaps they could usefully inform our efforts to deal with other crises and social problems in general. Here’s what I see:
1. SIMPLE SEEMING CAUSE: Each of these crises has a seemingly simple linear cause. In the case of Ebola, the cause is the Ebola virus, which disables the human immune system and starts disrupting and dissolving internal organs. In the case of the climate crisis, the cause is greenhouse gas emissions, particularly CO2 and methane, which raise the temperature – or, more accurately, the energetic intensity – of Earth’s atmosphere, causing extreme weather and rising oceans.
2. “SIDE EFFECTS”: Some of the most major problems characterizing each crisis are generated by “side effects”, offshoots of the primary cause. In the case of Ebola, many sufferers die not from internal bleeding but from dehydration caused by intense, constant vomiting and diarrhea that kills them before the disease has run its course. At the social level, Ebola deaths tear apart families and communities… Businesses close down from fear, generating unemployment and making it hard to get goods and services… Health care systems become too overwhelmed to deal with other health problems…
In the case of climate, we find ocean acidification, crop disasters, human and animal migrations (including the migration of disease germs and pests like Ebola), species extinctions, and social unrest and wars due to shortages of water and food and the degradation of infrastructure from flooding, violent storms, and drought.
3. REINFORCING FEEDBACK LOOPS: The natural dynamics of each crisis involve drivers that cause it to become worse – drivers that THEMSELVES become more powerful the longer they are neglected. In systems terms, these are called positive, amplifying, or reinforcing feedback loops because they naturally tend to amplify or reinforce themselves without extrinsic influence. Thus, unless they are countered or balanced out, they will generate explosive escalation of the crisis to potentially catastrophic proportions and systemic collapse.
The Ebola epidemic spreads rapidly (and at first seemingly mysteriously) because it is transmitted by contact with the body fluids of an infected person, and human bodies have many orifices and breaks in the skin through which the virus can exit or enter. This is compounded by the fact that Ebola’s incubation period is 2-21 days and the disease first manifests symptoms that can seem minor or due to other illnesses (like colds, flu, or malaria), leading to one victim infecting many others before their actual disease is identified. Without intense medical intervention the fatality rate can reach 90%. Many people are infected handling the dead bodies of victims or even their bedding or other material that their bodily fluids have come in contact with. In particular, this has meant that medical personnel have been infected at the very time that their hospitals and isolation units were becoming overwhelmed, creating an increasingly chaotic, depleted public health environment. Furthermore, poverty has caused increased crowding in the cities and constant movement between the cities and rural villages – and thus, on both counts, more contacts and spreading the disease – while also playing a role in there being few medical resources to start with.
In the case of the climate crisis, the biggest amplifying feedback dynamic has to do with methane, which is 20-84 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 over the first 20 years after its release. As the atmosphere warms, the vast quantities of methane long frozen in tundra or undersea deposits are progressively thawing out and being released into the atmosphere. (Methane is also emitted from landfills, livestock, and the mining and use of natural gas, although these greenhouse contributions are not strictly part of the methane feedback loop.) Other amplifying feedback loops in climate change include
(a) the early or total melting of ice caps, glaciers, and snow, revealing dark land and sea which absorb sun-heat that the snow and ice had previously reflected off into space;
(b) deforestation and desertification due to drought and forest fires. Global warming increases lightning strikes as well as undermining forest health through dryness, heat, and pestilence. This degradation of vegetation not only releases CO2 into the atmosphere as the vegetation burns or decays but also reduces the biomass of plants available to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere; and
(c) the heating of the ocean which is progressively reducing its ability to absorb CO2 and atmospheric heat.
By significantly increasing the net greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere, all these feedback loops heat the atmosphere further, which amplifies these reinforcing feedback loops, releasing more greenhouse gasses, on and on, progressively exacerbating the crisis.
4. IGNORANCE: To the extent these feedback dynamics are unrecognized, denied, or not addressed, they have free reign to spin the crises out of control. In the case of Ebola in West Africa, a significant factor has been the population’s widespread (albeit understandable) ignorance of the causes and dynamics of the disease, even to the extent that people have attacked medical and aid personnel due to rumors that they are the cause of the epidemic rather than part of the solution.
In the case of the climate crisis, general public ignorance is exacerbated by the intrinsic uncertainty associated with the progress of climate change – uncertainty which has been manipulated by the climate denial movement to confuse the public about climate science and curtail the attention being paid to the crisis as a whole. And where the crisis IS being attended to, CO2 emissions from individual and industrial sources tend to be highlighted and publicized at the expense of attention to the positive feedback loops tied to methane and environmental degradation. These latter factors are therefore “sneaking up” on us, slowly working their way into public and governmental consciousness long after they began playing significant roles.
5. HUMAN NATURE: Both crises are exacerbated by natural human qualities and inclinations. from the beautiful and ordinary to the tragic and ugly. Ebola has spread largely through the natural human desire to touch each other and to care for our loved ones as well as our urge to serve our communities and our strong bias against isolation except as punishment. Because contact spreads the disease, all too often these admirable impulses have made the epidemic worse. Ironically, people also naturally feel fear which, combined with ignorance, sometimes stimulates overreaction, resulting in unnecessary isolation, closing of hospitals, schools and government offices, the flight of public officials, border restrictions, and shunning of people who don’t even have the disease. In addition, fear combines with shame to produce unwillingness to report victims and contacts to health workers trying to limit the epidemic’s spread.
On the climate crisis side, greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation persist largely through (among other factors) greed and our appetites for certain foods and experiences, as well as our love of convenience, comfort, social status, cheap goods, power, speed, and profit. Unfortunately, our cognitive and social systems are not adequately set up to allow us to directly perceive or experience the systemic consequences of those drives – especially when they are magnified by billions of us indulging them. Among those indulging the most are elites who know a lot about what’s going on and who wield considerable power in shaping what happens next. The fact that their power includes the capacity to shield themselves from the consequences of environmental and climate disruption has been noted as a common cause of the collapse of previous civilizations.
6. DELAY: In crises like these, key people and institutions too often tend to not respond until it is actually or nearly too late. Citizens tend to assume such crises will be handled by certain public and private institutions. However, alarms are often ignored by such institutions until public outcry or economic pressures and realities become too great. Among the reasons for this are ego and turf issues, ignorance of – or being overwhelmed by – the problem or its systemic dynamics, the normal inertia of bureaucracy and general human business-as-usual habits, and the assumptions and dynamics of power inequities and privilege – including the relatively secure isolation of elites and the deplorable conditions found in many impoverished communities.
Regarding Ebola, TIME ascribes the months of delayed response not only to poverty but to “feckless African governments and complacent Western powers, rival healers and turf-guarding bureaucrats. National and global health authorities would wait five months beyond March to acknowledge the unfolding disaster. Health ministries would ignore the warnings of doctors who were seeing the hot zone firsthand…. By the time the authorities woke up, the epidemic was galloping away from them.” The one organization that didn’t delay was the “fiercely independent” Doctors Without Borders, on the ground in West Africa investigating and sounding the alarm. But “again and again, health officials complained that the doctors—not the disease—would panic the populace. ‘We were quickly told by a variety of agencies that we were crying wolf.’” Furthermore, for months, offers of help from the US-based and well-resourced Center for Disease Control (with 2000 field workers in 60 countries) was turned away by the UN World Health Organization’s international bureaucracy and by WHO’s turf-jealous local representatives.
In the case of climate disruption, we find delays arising from corruption or co-optation of government and media by special interests who are tied to industries whose operations and/or products generate greenhouse gasses. Such debasement of democracy undermines a society’s ability to address virtually every issue in a wise and timely way.
Under these conditions the previously mentioned natural qualities and inclinations of people – especially among elites – generate dangerous delays, providing valuable time for the amplifying feedback dynamics to do their destructive work and get out of hand, leading to overshoot.
7. OVERSHOOT: When amplifying feedback dynamics are not interrupted – especially when their escalating impacts are unrealized or warnings about the increasing trouble is not received or acted upon – the impacts of a crisis tend to grow increasingly difficult and expensive to address…. until remediation becomes impossible. Interventions provide diminishing returns and the very capacity to respond is itself undermined.
In the case of Ebola, already meager health care systems in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone became totally overwhelmed and health workers were struck down with the disease, leaving more infected people loose to endanger others. Perhaps more importantly, programs intended to track down and isolate all the recent contacts of newly diagnosed patients faced challenges that increased at an exponential rate: The longer such programs were delayed, the more people became infected and the more people they, in turn, infected. How do you keep up and trace them all? Furthermore, as victims became disabled and died, they could no longer provide information regarding their contacts. These dynamics are, in fact, still playing out. Had the response to the earliest reports been immediate, this tracking and isolating would have readily nipped the epidemic in the bud. The delay of months before anything remotely adequate was instigated created an almost impossible task.
In the case of climate, debates over whether any given instance of extreme weather represents a symptom of climate change – compounded by the well-funded climate denial movement and the unfortunate misnomer of “global warming” (which raises many people’s doubts when climate disruption creates cold snaps and blizzards) – makes it hard for most people to personally experience something they can clearly identify as climate disruption. The slow development of climate phenomena (at least compared to the speed of most events in modern life) supports the proverbial frog-heating-till-it-boils phenomenon. With all the other things people have to worry about in their immediate lives and political fronts, they have little attention left to attend to something that seems so distant, so non-immediate. This is exacerbated by the short-term perspective dictated by news cycles, corporate quarterly bottom lines, and biennial election cycles; there are few incentives to think in terms of decades, to say nothing of seven generations into the future. And this short-term thinking is hammered into place by the fact that taking an honest long-term view would demand major sacrifices and/or changes in the current business-as-usual activities of individuals and society as a whole. All this gives time for the climate’s disruptive potential – its positive feedback loops and stocks of greenhouse gasses and heat – to develop momentum that will require rapidly increasing investments to address with the increasing likelihood that it could not be stopped or reversed even with the best efforts.
Overshoot, at its worst, means we have gone beyond the point of no return. The fact that we don’t actually know where that point is undermines the motivation we need to make the necessary changes in our collective behaviors and systems in time.
8. TRANSFORMATIONAL IMPLICATIONS: Ultimately, both crises (and other social and environmental challenges) arise from the ways our social, political, and economic systems are set up and the cultural stories we tell ourselves and each other (e.g., that we are separate and independent individuals, groups, and countries, not totally interdependent parts of a single living global system).
For example: the Ebola epidemic was partially caused by our ill-conceived vision of “development” (which includes encroaching on the habitats within which these disease vectors have long been constrained, as well as creating concentrations of urban poverty) and the shock of industrial society (and its associated climate disruptions) on natural systems, longstanding human cultures, and evolutionary dynamics. Thinking into the future, industrial society also makes possible bioengineering laboratories – both official and underground – that may very well generate future epidemics intentionally or by accident which we may or may not be able to control. It is also clear that industrial civilization – so fundamentally powered with fossil fuels, competition, visions of human economic and technical progress, and profit-taking – naturally views nature and people primarily as exploitable resources and so is quite inclined to degrade the environment, including the atmosphere, as long as industry doesn’t have to pay for it. So there is a way that advancing industrial society quite naturally brings climate disruption and new disease vectors into our lives in intimate companionship.
To the extent this is true, such crises can then only ultimately be “solved” through the transformation of those systemic causes – i.e., of industrial civilization itself – with priority given to supporting systemic and community resilience, equity in the satisfaction of basic human needs, and wise respect for the needs of natural species and systems. But that challenge seems so gigantic, disruptive, and unthinkable to the vast majority of people – including both leaders and ordinary citizens – that its overwhelming nature itself becomes part of the feedback dynamics that push such crises into overshoot and systemic collapse.
9. DIFFERENCES BETWEEN EBOLA AND CLIMATE: I want to highlight, however, that there are some very significant and troubling differences between these two crises. Ebola is immediate and involves intense human sufferings and threats that can be made compellingly visible – and are being made visible, both through responsible journalism like TIME’s “Person of the Year” coverage and (ironically) the irresponsible fear mongering of many other media. Such impactful publicity – which has attracted attention, resources, and volunteers, albeit tragically belated in the case of Ebola – is much weaker in the case of climate disruption, at least at this stage in its development. Furthermore, there is little or no profit to be made by keeping the Ebola crisis going and no advantages to the general population. In contrast, there are tremendous profits to be made – and power to be had – by keeping global civilization dependent on fossil fuels, forest products, meat, and consumerism in general as long as possible… and the vast majority of people consider life to be better when these things are affordably delivered to them. This portends increasing climate disruption as developing countries grow their carbon-intensive middle classes and advanced countries progressively lose resources to address the problem or develop sustainable systems. These factors mean that climate disruption will be much harder to stop than the Ebola epidemic (although some suggest that our emissions, at least, will be strictly curtailed in the near future by the increasing difficulty of affordably accessing quality fossil fuels, a problem usually described as “peak oil”, which itself would constitute a mega-crisis for civilization if not prepared for in a timely manner).
10. SYSTEMS LESSON #1: WE CAN’T KNOW. In a complex system there is no way to be certain of any particular single cause, single effect, or any future events or conditions – an uncertainty that grows the later we try to predict. The situation is just too complex, multi-faceted, and evolving. We also can’t fully control what happens – although we can learn enough to estimate useful probabilities and leverage points in the system, exercise informed influence, and monitor what happens. Unfortunately, the intrinsic level of uncertainty in complex systems and crises causes many of us to either retreat into an imagined certainty (which we usually try to sell to others, as well) or to contract our attention and action into a more limited zone within which more is or can be known and our impact can be more easily seen or measured. However, either of these strategies constitute a retreat from actually confronting the reality of the complex systemic situations we face. A more successful strategy is to first acknowledge the uncertainty, then learn everything we can about the systemic dynamics involved and then, from what we learn, give our best shot at intervening at the systemic level – addressing feedback loops, incentives, goals, etc., that influence how things unfold in the system – and then to note what happens and revise what we do accordingly, on an ongoing basis. (For one model of the range of systemic factors that can be tapped for leverage, see Donella Meadows’ “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System”.)
11. SYSTEMS LESSON #2: DO IT NOW! We could say that a corollary of “We can’t know” is “Let’s not act like we know or delay action until we know for sure”. That’s a seriously misguided approach. “A stitch in time saves nine” was good systemic advice from Benjamin Franklin. Where reinforcing feedback loops are part of the dynamics involved in an emerging crisis, DON’T WAIT. This is where it helps to at least have a basic level of knowledge about how systems work so we can take informed action early and impact the system in “upstream” ways that reduce the chances of the same kinds of crises happening repeatedly. To the extent we let concerns about disruption, inconvenience, and unnecessary expenditures restrain our responses, we court serious overwhelm and collapse. In the case of large-scale whole-system social and environmental crises like climate disruption, change agents and conscious evolutionaries would be wise to examine all the systemic dynamics – from short-term profit, extreme inequality, and externalized costs, to special interest manipulation of democracy, lack of wisdom-generating institutions, and weak answerability systems – that lead us to habitually ignore the early signals of impending disaster. Transforming those systemic flaws – and they are many, varied, and very worthy of extended (and urgent) exploration – will enable our societies to respond in a timely, creative manner to ALL our collective challenges. (If you want a taste of an early ignored warning about climate change, check out this short video from 1958, “The Unchained Goddess”. It almost makes me cry to think how different our situation would be now if we had acted then. But who would we have had to be, to do that? And who do we have to be today?)
12. SYSTEMS LESSON #3: ECO-HUMILITY: The functioning of the biosphere is not about us, despite the ways it supports us and the ways in which we so ubiquitously impact and abuse it. The natural world sustains itself – as do most sustainable systems – by having “negative” or “balancing” feedback loops that keep extremes from getting out of hand. If an extreme dynamic does get out of hand, natural dynamics eliminate the source of the imbalance. The obvious and very relevant example is that when a species “takes over” the habitat it shares with other species, natural dynamics soon wipe it out, usually by wiping out its food sources (and often much else at the same time).
For many deep ecologists, the mythic Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – pestilence, war, famine and death – all of which are exacerbated by each other and by mega-crises like climate disruption and resource depletion – are signs of nature’s immune system fighting back against the ever more invasive Earth-affliction of industrial civilization. Our efforts to “solve” these crises are ultimately doomed to fail because the Earth’s immune system will evolve increasingly potent responses to each new encroaching capacity we develop – unless and until we transform ourselves and our civilization from a plague upon the world to a caring partner in the ongoing sustenance of the larger body of life of which we are a part.
That is the highest purpose to which our consciousness, creativity, intelligence, wisdom and resources can be applied. Applying ourselves to that purpose – including increasing our understanding of and conscious engagement with system dynamics like those discussed above – is the evolutionary leap that reality is pressuring us to take. Should we fail to take it, evolution will deal with us the way it has dealt with the vast majority of species in the deep history of Earth: Extinction is a very natural phenomenon.
Should we succeed, however, we will indeed have become a new form of life on Earth – a consciously sustainable and evolving planetary civilization – and many of our wisest aspirations for our world will suddenly become possible. And we’ll have the time we need to realize them all, if we so choose.
* In my opinion, the main shortcoming of the TIME piece is that it fails to mention that Cuba and China are each sending approximately 500 medical staff to West Africa – more than any other countries, although others are sending more money, equipment, and non-medical personnel. TIME’s coverage would have been more powerful and illuminating had it covered the Cuban medical workers, in particular, who have a long history of international aid in the developing world – a remarkable fact noted by both The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among others. Readers could use some background about why Cuba is so different from all other countries in this regard.
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