Australian National University
Princeton University September 2012 Emergent Risk conference
Hyperlinks added October 2016, in memory of Professor John Urry
Population vulnerability is cyclic, analogous to immunity. Following epidemics, surviving populations have sufficient antibodies to inhibit repeat infection until a sufficient number of immunologically vulnerability people accrue, due to waning immunity and the maturing of a new generation. Other forms of cyclic risk exist, driven by the waxing and waning of collective memory and behaviour and amplified by the rise and fall of social mechanisms. Three examples are global conflict, inequality and economic history.
In the first, strong global social forces following World War II (WWII) led to a sufficiently vigorous social contract to inhibit very large-scale state violence, fortified by numerous institutions including the United Nations. Almost 70 years later, the “social immunity” generated by the two World Wars is still fairly powerful, though some of the institutions are weakening. The second example concerns inequality. Following the Depression and WWII sufficient social forces were liberated to reduce inequality of several forms; in the US memory of the “gilded age” faded, in the UK the National Health Service was born, and the global wave of decolonisation appeared unstoppable. However, gradually, many forms of inequality have reappeared, including in most formerly Communist nations. Economic history comprises the third example. Economic booms and busts have occurred since at least the Great Tulip frenzy (1634-37), and the cycle continues, not least because mainstream opinion in new generations asserts that the problem has been solved – and a new generation of naive speculators and investors is seduced.
Today, global civilisation itself is threatened. This risk may be “emergent”, as defined by this meeting, but is also ancient and recurrent. Numerous civilisations have collapsed in the past; what differs today is the global scale of this risk. This is plausible due not only to globalisation but also to the convergence of several forms of risk “immuno-naïveté”. This vulnerability has also been described as arising from the “Cornucopian Enchantment”, a period since roughly 1980, when most economists, decision makers and even the academy reached quasi-consensus that the problem of scarcity had been permanently solved. This hubris seemed rational to a new generation, trained and rewarded to think that economics and ingenuity would of themselves solve all major problems; such pride was fortified (for a time) by data regarding cheap food, cheap energy and declining global hunger. However, in the last decade, data have accumulated that show not just diminishing reserves (eg oil); but less contestable evidence such as rising prices (oil, food), rising unemployment and increased social resentment. Nevertheless, most policy makers remain wedded to the “old-world thinking” that has helped create these developing, interacting crises.
What can be more important than to reduce the emergent risk of global civilisation collapse? Failure to lower this risk may lead to a dramatic change in global consciousness, following a period likely to make the Dark Ages seem desirable. Instead, it is vital to “immunise” a sufficient number of people who can then demand, develop and support the requisite radical new policies. These include acceptance that resources are limited, development of green economic systems that will price negative externalities, and revival of fairness of opportunity.