A worrying chain of events

Growing global connectivity increases risks for linked crises

The interactive effects of global drivers and national-scale policy responses led to the food price crisis of 2007-08 with origins and impacts in far removed parts of the globe. The crisis was exacerbated by drougths in key production regions. Illustration: Biggs, D., R. Biggs, V. Dakos, R. J. Scholes, and M. Schoon, Ecology and Society 16(2): 27.

There is a growing concern among scientists and policy makers that environmental crises are no longer the sole acts of nature but rather the result of an accelerating human-induced global change.

At the same time, a pattern is starting to unfold: crises such as floodings, famine and pandemic diseases are not only turning increasingly intense, they are also increasingly connected.

One thing leads to another
In an article published in Ecology and Society (request article), an international team of researchers including Oonsie Biggs from the centre asks if we are entering an era of 'concatenated global crises'.

Concatenated crises are disturbances or shocks that emerge pretty much simultaneously, spread rapidly and interact with each other across the globe.

Biggs and her colleagues explored how crises such as the 2007-08 food price crisis, whose origin and effects stem from far removed parts of the world and diverse economic sectors, turned into a global crisis.

Expensive fuel means expensive food
The causes and processes leading to global crises are difficult to untangle, but it appears that the food price crisis started with soaring energy prices.

After three decades of falling prices, the price for staples such as rice increased by 255% between 2004 and 2008, largely because the price of petroleum, coal and natural in the same period increased by an average of 127%.

Largely due to soaring costs, environmental concerns and security issues, the EU and the US enacted ambitious pro-biofuel production policies. But the whole project backfired: between 2007 and 2008 the conversion of land from food to biofuel production led to an inflationary pressure on global food prices.

In an attempt to deal with the emerging food price crisis, a number of countries such as India, Egypt, Vietnam, Argentina, Russia and China sanctioned substantial restrictions on food export which inevitably lead to further increase in food prices.

"The food crisis illustrates how a series of crises interacted with national policy responses to propagate the crisis throughout a highly connected global system," Oonsie Biggs explains.

The food crisis was shortly followed by the financial crisis that reduced exports, economic growth, employment and government budgets for social support. It didn't soften the blow on food prices much either. FAO's Cereal Price Index was still 50% higher in January 2009 than in 2005, leaving some 457 million people at risk of hunger and malnutrition.

Partly irreducible, partly possible to detect
The questions remains: how can we deal with the uncertainty implicit in crises that are increasingly linked?

"Some uncertainties surrounding concatenated crises are probably irreducible, because they result from fundamentally unpredictable processes. However, the same increased connectivity that promotes the concatenation of crises also provides unprecedented opportunities to learn about emerging problems and coordinate a response," Biggs says.

For example, WHO uses web-crawlers to collect data that can help detect the outbreak of an epidemic. Similar approaches can be used to prevent the spread of disasters in social-ecological systems.

Overall, we need to bolster our capacity to deal with increasingly complex and interconnected crises.

"Scientific capacity for the early detection of potentially propagating crises needs to be advanced. The same goes for our understanding and awareness of feedbacks and interdependencies that can lead to impacts spreading to other systems," Oonsie Biggs concludes.

Biggs, D., R. Biggs, V. Dakos, R. J. Scholes, and M. Schoon. 2011. Are we entering an era of concatenated global crises? Ecology and Society 16(2): 27. www.ecologyandsociety.org/

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Oonsie Biggs´ research focuses on regime shifts — large, abrupt, long-lasting changes in the dynamics of coupled social-ecological systems that can have dramatic impacts on human economies and societies.


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