Reviews, interviews and insights
Capitalist Futures: Resilience by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy
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:
- Finance & fragility: In the run up to the 08 crisis, the authors describe how the banks’ slicing-up, repackaging and reselling of credit, debt and risk led to such an unfathomably complex and incomprehensible chain of custody that no single institution could be confident of the integrity of its own assets, let alone those of its partners (a conclusion Michael Lewis also drew in his 2010 book, The Big Short). Further, by 2007, the performance of the sector had become so homogenous – rising and falling on the same tide – that when Lehman’s fell, it proved lethal to the whole body politic. The authors conclude: ‘The complexity, concentration and homogeneity of a system can amplify its fragility; the right kinds of simplicity, localism and diversity can amplify its resilience.’
- Psychology, Society, Cities & Scale: The book reviews a raft of studies which show a discernible pattern in populations that have experienced trauma – be it surviving Auschwitz, natural disasters, illness or the loss of a child – where it would be reasonable to suppose high percentages of the affected population would suffer long-term consequences. In fact, studies show the rate of psychological post-traumatic stress disorder never exceeds one third of the impacted population (be it a family or a country), while rates of coping and resilience are always evident in at least another third. The authors suggest that this equation is part of the evolution of human communities: ‘that there is always at least a sizable minority or even majority to take care of those deeply affected by trauma’. Looking at how communities and systems evolve and scale, the authors further demonstrate that urban growth always consistently impacts a raft of other variables: ‘When you double the size of a city, you produce, on average 15% higher wages, 15% more fancy restaurants, but also 15% more AIDS cases and 15% more violent crime. Everything scales up by 15% when you double the size’ – and this apparently applies to all cities since the dawn of civilisation.
- Networks, Technology & Leadership: The book appraises some of the informal and organic networks that have been galvanised by crises, such as the Haiti earthquake, and enabled by new technology. In particular, the authors highlight Ushahidi (which means ‘to bear witness’ in Swahili) which enables crowdsourcing of data that can be mapped in a single display that is accessible to citizens so they can understand what’s happening around then and explore larger trends over time. In the Haiti instance, Ushahidi enabled messaging from survivors to be translated and mapped to empower and target emergency response by aid agencies. Its success depended entirely on a highly collaborative informal and global network of differently skilled volunteers (from programmers through to translators) and to clear leadership by individuals ‘who modelled desired behaviour, showed commitment to a shared goal above all else, and didn’t show any sign of defecting from the common purpose.’
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.